One-off passion play won't do, we need precision, pace and a plan
According to Stephen Hawking the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge. Ireland performed exceptionally well last Saturday and all deserve acknowledgement, but we also know Declan Kidney’s Ireland have struggled for consistency of performance.
I was delighted to witness the unbridled exuberance of Ireland’s play, primarily for themselves, but after a sweet victory it is always easier to ask questions: what do we know? We know that regardless of opposition and form, Ireland (with or without their stars) can perform; Argentina last weekend, New Zealand second Test and Australia in RWC 2011. We also know Ireland can be abject against similar opposition – Wales et al.
Even New Zealand are prone to dips in form, so too Australia and clearly Wales are in one now. Argentina arrived into a mini slump last Saturday. In benchmarking terms, Australia, Wales and Argentina are possible bedfellows. We know our feeder system (provinces) is exceptional compared to Wales and Argentina; so, should we not be better?
How do they utilise their bench, how does Kidney? Rugby has changed much, nowhere more than with subs, where it is bizarre we still have the illusion of knowledge on this issue. In eight years Philip Matthews played 38 times for Ireland; starting all 38. Ronan O’Gara, our leading cap holder (126), has now amassed 39 international caps from the bench. Clearly this has paid major dividends to Ireland over the seasons but what is the dividend for trotting out with minutes to go?
Not pairing Leinster duo Sexton and Reddan is also curious . Early intervention in the front five has been poor (exhausted Ireland frontrow against South Africa). The Kidney bench is not a tactical weapon.
What is the Irish style of game and who are best placed to provide it? Unlike with Eddie O’Sullivan’s teams, Ireland have struggled to find a consistent, discernible game plan the players totally understand. Thankfully last Saturday they did.
Of the modern day multicappers the most successful this country has produced is Peter Stringer. With 98 caps (only 17 from the bench) he leads the way with 68.87 per cent wins (Brian O’Driscoll is on 62.08 per cent and O’Gara 59.12 per cent). What this tells me is twofold: scrumhalves are more important than stars further out the field, and the style of scrumhalf is crucial to our game.
The Stringer effect
If that is the case then do we need to look for the Stringer effect – very quick hands, lightning delivery and match-saving defensive tackles on Dan Luger et al?
Kidney’s location and promotion of talent has been slow. No doubt we all enjoy the fruits of Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy’s man of the match awards and a sensational performance from Craig Gilroy, but all were promoted due to injury or circumstances. For some reason Sexton’s Ireland performances have often been underwhelming. There is no competition for his place, he is the best we have, hence he must be encouraged to set the best standards and empowered to achieve them.
Fundamentally, Kidney’s operating speed is slow caution, hence we have not reacted quickly enough to evolving international styles in general, nor to the unfolding of a match in particular.
We have struggled to negotiate the Welsh defensive systems, we have had no consistent counter-attack policy. We have been far too one-dimensional in our attack, with forwards and backs lacking a unity of effort in attack.
When the team has been put under pressure to perform, be it due to going into a match with the odds stacked against them, or during the match itself as it unfolds on the day, we have tended to react in two ways; with an overwhelmingly passionate performance (Australia RWC 2011) which temporarily masks the deficiencies in our game plan and ability to implement same; or negatively, witness the third Test against New Zealand or Wales in RWC 2011.
When under pressure we have had a strong tendency to drift back to a Munster style of rugby; brave forwards carrying into triple team fringes (South Africa three weeks ago), allied to a backline that works independently of its forwards and drifts aimlessly towards touch.
Last Saturday appeared to be a unified effort, not built on passion but on precision and pace. Argentina’s failure to mount a real assault is a concern in judging whether this performance was a one-off, or the fruits of a master plan. Kidney suggested beforehand the Pumas had improved immensely due to their involvement in the Rugby Championship.
If that is the case and we extend that logic to ourselves, why then were we beaten by 60 points in New Zealand, three games in? Argentina managed to get through six bruising encounters in a real competition with a squad drawn from all over the rugby-playing world to mount a challenge with the elite.
The Six Nations is around the corner and with our talent there is now no turning back. We open to Wales in Cardiff, making this our watershed. Declan Kidney is an unbelievable winner, having provided enormous success, but that’s no longer sufficient. If Ireland fail to perform in Cardiff there must be change on Sunday morning, February 3rd; otherwise last weekend was nothing but a Stephen Hawking illusion.