Kidney should note how Lancaster uses his bench for maximum impact
Given time and opportunity to build on the exciting new talent and integration work conducted thus far there is a bounce in this Ireland team. Just look at the reaction of the players: they expect more of themselves. Who is the best placed to unearth the bounce?
Add in Brian O’Driscoll: aside from his outstanding support lines on Sunday, his selfless clearing of rucks was immense – I lost count of the amount of times he powered his body at grass height to secure ball; the hunger burns deep, why go?
Last year I asked a very different question: who selects the best coach? To it I wonder what would keep O’Driscoll playing?
Either way, I’m not overly interested as “carpet bombing” is my current fascination. Carpet bombing is an extensive, systematic aerial bombing designed to devastate a large target so as to inflict damage to all and sundry.
When French outhalf Frederic Michalak stepped across the line on 52 minutes at Twickenham all I could think of was damage. He may provide a moment of brilliance in unlocking the English but will surely destroy everything French in his path. What, then, is his or any other “bench” player’s role?
The very last stroke of an oarsman is to get the boat across the line. The rugby bench, in rowing parlance, is designed to get the team roaring across the 80-minute line on maximum stroke. There are times a team wins and deserves criticism and there are times it loses and deserves praise, but last Sunday was different.
Stuart Lancaster has conditioned 23 players to keep pushing the boundaries right to the 80th minute. In fairness to Scotland, they finished much stronger than Ireland, who, under Kidney, have struggled to maximise the full time available for all three matches thus far. Why?
Of the eight subs available, six were used but just one was an impact one, and only one change (Dave Kilcoyne) was made to the physically toughest row on the pitch.
The Ireland bench, as represented by Seán Cronin’s role, is a flawed element of our process.
Ditto for Mike Ross.
Cronin is a class player and an amazing asset but his accuracy out of touch masks his general rugby.
With an underperforming lineout there are options; 1, shorten the numbers; 2, speed up the entry; 3, vary the movement/targets; 4, change the lineout manager; 5, ignore the best tactical location and simply get the ball without being concerned with future plays.
Finally, change the personnel therein.
No faith in his darts
In not bringing on Cronin, Kidney publicly admitted he had no faith in his darts because his fresh legs, ball-carrying and scrum would have certainly impacted. Why then have him on the bench? An injured Richardt Strauss has been an obvious answer but that, of course, misses the point.
If a player on the bench’s primary role is flawed and he can’t impact, why are they there? I’ve long admired Munster’s temporary captain Mike Sherry, who is a fine player and accurate out of touch.
He’s not the only one.
What constitutes an impact? This question brings us back to Lancaster. Unfortunately, much modern coaches’ work is premeditated but Lancaster’s decisions appear to be based on actual happenings on the pitch. At half-time the score was 0-3 to Ireland and my mind drifted to our bench. Against France, Lancaster started with Courtney Lawes on the flank with James Haskell the impact. Their roles were somewhat reversed against us but both made huge impacts.
Against Ireland, 130kg Saracens loosehead prop Mako Vunipola arrived on 58 minutes (51 against France). Mike Ross battled to that point and as Joe Marler was running low, he faced Vunipola. The Tongan may not be the best technician but he didn’t have to be as it is not possible for Ross, at international level, to maintain top energy for 80 minutes.
Crucially, Lancaster also knows Ross will dip and will not be replaced, making Vunipola’s major impact around the pitch less risky, where against France he chased Alex Goode’s Garryowen and was first to tackle Yannick Nyanga before kicking the ball to Manu Tuilagi for his five-pointer and a win for England. Props are no longer programmed for 80 minutes; there is no choice.
The player to impact most positively in Edinburgh was Eoin Reddan. This is understandable as the game had loosened up but he does have far more urgency, which brings out a hive of activity in the team. Considering the French physique this affords Kidney a great combination at half back, with Conor Murray starting knowing he can impact with Reddan.
Speed things up
However, Reddan did speed things up so I wonder could he do so from the kick-off? It’s a nice conundrum but unfortunately the only real one Kidney has available to him and whose fault is that? Injury hasn’t helped but neither has his bench policy over the years.
The brilliance of Lancaster is in conditioning internationals into their crucial role over the 80 minutes, be it starting or on the bench.
PS. If you think carpet bombing is tough, check out Ollie Shortt’s desert run in April for the IRFU’s charitable trust. The Marathon des Sables 250km run through the Sahara Desert over 7 days “It’s not a Race. . .It’s a War!” www.give2go.ie/profile/OllieShortt