A fully deserved boost for Irish rugby

 

IRELAND'S run of success in Cardiff continues. Maybe we should ask the Welsh Rugby Union to allow Ireland to play all their "home" matches there, or import 10,000 members of the Welsh choir for our Lansdowne Road matches.

Whatever the secret, some of the most memorable moments in Irish rugby in the last 15 years have occurred there.

Saturday's success was fully deserved and I'm sure players and management will be asking themselves how they allowed Wales to come so close at the end. The explanation is simple: we lost our concentration for vast periods of the second half and committed unforced errors in the same way in which we did against the French late in that match.

A lot of the possession which we won in the second half was not used as effectively or clinically as we had done in the first half, when clever kicking by Hogan and Elwood, in particular, had the Welsh on the retreat.

Instead, in the second half we overplayed the ball when, especially with the aid of the slight wind, we should have kicked the Welsh back into their corners.

The defence was much improved, especially around the fringes where the Welsh had decided to attack. Apart from their opening burst, Wales were very ineffective, until scrum half Rob Howley, probably acting on instructions, began to speed the game up after the break.

Some commentators were criticising Crotty on the wing for his defence for Evans' two tries, but there was nothing he could have done about the first one after the pass from Thomas had beaten the inside defence. In regard to the second, the Welsh winger has done the same to many players far more experienced than the Irish wing.

The highlight of the match was the try scored by Denis Hickie. Not only was it beautifully initiated by the long pass from Miller, but the manner in which it was finished off by Staples, Corkery and Hickie was most encouraging.

In fact, Miller and Corkery must now be genuine contenders for the Lions tour to South Africa if they continue with this level of performance. Denis McBride found the heavier Welsh backrow difficult to cope with but, as always, kept coming back for more. Against England we should probably switch Corkery and McBride on defensive scrums in certain positions where the opposition backrow are likely to attack.

The front row all played well. Popplewell's earlier poor form appears to have been due to a lack of serious competitive matches as he improves on each international outing. Wallace was his usual industrious self, and Nesdale lived up to his reputation. You obviously don't play as often as he has done for Auckland without being a useful performer.

Jeremy Davidson had another outstanding match and is, at this stage, a certainty for the Lions tour. Paddy Johns' work rate was immense and he will take more pleasure from this victory than most.

Both half backs played well, apart from the period in the second half when the entire team seemed to have lost concentration. Elwood will be disappointed at the 10 points which he allowed to slip away in the first half, but he did kick the crucial points later on with kicks which were real character testers.

Both centres defended very well and showed more willingness to run at the opposition than they had done in previous matches. Bell took his try well. Elwood's kick was perfectly placed, we got the lucky break and the referee failed to notice that Bell was offside at the kick.

I thought that the performance of the referee, Wayne Erickson, was erratic to say the least.

I recently saw a video of Queensland versus Ireland on our last tour to Australia, which he refereed. I wasn't surprised on Saturday after what I saw on that video. Either they play to different rules in Australia or their referees don't travel as well as their wine.

Denis Hickie had an excellent debut and, barring injury, will be around for a long, long, time. He has the potential to become a truly great player.

Jim Staples will derive great satisfaction from this victory. His experience and coolness were important when we were under pressure. Also his ability to link with his support gives him the edge over Conor O'Shea.

It was important to build on the encouraging, committed performance against France. This was done. The pack proved again that they can deliver and there are signs that Brian Ashton has already begun to improve our back play.

We can look forward to the English match at Lansdowne Road with far more hope than we expected to have six weeks ago. It will, certainly, not be easy, but if we can repeat the better aspects of both the French and the Welsh games and eliminate the unforced errors and lapses of concentration the English might get more than they have probably bargained for.

Certainly this result, albeit by a single point, was a badly needed shot in the arm for Irish, rugby.