A good win, but plenty left to do
I felt before the game that the quality of our performance was as important as winning. The score was very satisfactory from an Irish point of view, and it would have been even higher if Eric Elwood had been in better kicking form. The quality of the performance, however, was quite a way short of what would be required to win any of the Five Nations games. Our decision to attack the Canadians around the fringes of rucks and mauls was difficult to understand. This was their strongest area, and we knew that before hand. Maybe this is the style of game that coach Brian Ashton wants to develop, but in any game you have to adapt your style to suit the opposition.
The Canadian defence out wide was nothing short of appalling. Both Nowlan's first try and Maggs's try resulted from dreadfully poor defence by the Canadian backs. (To give them their due, McGuinness and Henderson contributed hugely to the tries by the quickness of their passes.)
McGuinness's try was well taken, but I'm sure his back line would have had something to say to him had he been stopped. But when you are that close to the line and you believe that you are going to make it, you always have a go.
Costello's try showed his strength and pace at that distance and will also present the selectors with a dilemma next time out.
Nowlan's second try was a fine piece of play, particularly by McGuinness again, who, having made the break, timed his pass to perfection.
The newer players, Nowlan, Maggs, McGuinness, O'Kelly, Erskine and Dawson, all did well individually and have improved their selection chances. I'm not convinced about the midfield partnership. Surely Henderson should be the crash ball carrier rather than the much smaller McCall, who found himself doing that on numerous occasions.
With all the possession we had, neither Elwood nor the two centres made any effective break in the whole game. We need at least one player in that area who is capable of doing so.
Nobody really played badly, but collectively it was never as cohesive as we would like it to have been.
The Canadians were much weaker than we expected. Their back play was very poor and limited in attacking ideas. Without Rees they would have been even poorer still. They did make a few individual breaks, through Rees and the midfield, but the team never seemed to know how to capitalise on these. Their lineout got sloppy as the game went on, even though this looked their most obvious try-scoring platform. It was their sheer physical strength and commitment to the tackle that kept them in the game for so long.
The Italian referee didn't help matters by blowing far too quickly. He also allowed the rucks to degenerate as the game progressed. The Canadians, in particular, seemed to have difficulty with his interpretations. And I have never seen a referee get in the way of play so often.
Going back to the Irish performance, as the game progressed our flankers appeared regularly among the backs. This is something the All Blacks do to great effect and is going to become more and more part of the game. Erskine looked happy in this role, but Dawson was guilty of a couple of handling errors when passes to Maggs on the left wing would have brought at least one try.
The ruck ball, in general, was far too slow. This may have been due, in part, to the strength of the Canadian forwards in the tackle, but it was also as a result of our failure to arrive early in sufficient numbers.
For the first hour we created rucks far too close to each other. Had we moved the opposition pack around the park in that phase of the game, I think try-scoring opportunities would have presented themselves earlier and more frequently than they did do.
Our lineout was comfortable and there is no doubt that we would win our own ball against anybody. I think we will find our opposition in the Five Nations will kick to touch as little as possible when they are playing against us, which should lead to greater excitement in those games.
The forwards will be disappointed that they didn't score from at least one of these lineouts close to the Canadian line. Under the present laws, really good sides always score from lineouts and, in particular, from scrums close to the opposition line.
Looking to the future, the Italian game will provide a much tougher test than the Canadians. Italian back play, influenced by the French, is of a much higher standard. They will test our defence far better with their expansive style of play.
None of the other Five Nations teams would be concerned by what they saw in Lansdowne Road yesterday, but, I hope, we will have improved a great deal by the time the championship comes around.
The fitness levels have definitely improved. Our defence, while probably better than last year, still needs tightening. But it is in the area of using our possession effectively that we have most work to do.
The team will be strengthened by the return of some of the injured players, in particular the three current Lions, Keith Wood, Jeremy Davidson and Eric Miller. Miller, however, will find it harder than the others to reclaim his preferred number eight spot.
If there is going to be any experimenting with a new combination, I'm sure it will be done in the Italian match. In fact, on reflection, I would try a few other players in that game, particularly in midfield.
(In an interview with Johnny Watterson)