Good day at office for Irish
A first rung up a long ladder, the first step being the win itself. This largely new-look Irish team needed a victory of any hue. While it won't have had Brian Ashton swinging from the rafters just yet, there was enough substance to the win to give encouragement. It mightn't have been the sort of 80 minute try-feast some punters in the 20,670 crowd were looking for, and it might have had its longueurs. But, ultimately, Ireland put together some good passages of play and in so doing put away physical and feisty opponents by five tries to one.
Had Eric Elwood not had an off day with his kicking, so much so that he seemed to lose faith in his own proven technique as he missed six out of nine kicks (or 14 points), then the scoreline might have had a different gloss and perceptions might have been different.
Missing up to 11 players through injury, including some serious international hitters in Keith Wood, Jeremy Davidson, Eric Miller and Conor O'Shea, it was still a creditable if patchy Irish effort. Without anything like the backdrop to the All Blacks encounter a fortnight beforehand - a half-full Lansdowne Road is always more half empty - Ireland whipped up their own mood and began full of positive intentions.
Opting for tap penalties or penalties to touch, they moved everything through the hand - when did a Lansdowne Road crowd last have to wait half-an-hour for the green-shirted out-half to kick the ball? Yerragh, and this was Eric Elwood?
However, after a bright, try-scoring opening, Ireland lost their way a little as the Canadians made the Irish toil. Pat Parfrey's Canadian team are clearly trying to develop their game beyond traditional boundaries and are having teething problems. They weren't quite as good as we had been led to believe, nevertheless it was the customary close-in battering from the forward runners and the beefy if skilful Gareth Rees which demanded a good defensive effort from the home side. Some of the fringe tackling by Ireland was first-rate and withstood prolonged spells of Canadian pressure.
Canada's appetite for the physical confrontation also generally made Ireland work for their scores. Significantly, perhaps, three of the five home tries came directly from scrums. The set-pieces were prolifically productive, though it was the quicker scrum ball and the ability of the tight five to twist or shove the scrum as they wanted which did the damage.
Equally noticeable was that four of the five tries were scored on the blind side, where the pace of the three St Mary's backs - feeding off the pick-ups of team-mate Victor Costello - took the Irish game on to a different level. At times it was almost a Templeville Road benefit. Costello, the impressive Conor McGuinness and the near-faultless David Nowlan scored all bar one of the tries. Even the under-served Dennis Hickie showed signs of a return to his best form.
But, moving the ball wide, this Irish back line still doesn't entirely convince. The scapegoat for this in many quarters will still be Eric Elwood. It's true that the Galwegians out-half threw out a few loose, loopy passes and won't have been entirely happy with his game, but the ball travelled through his hands for a couple of tries and there are assuredly other factors.
For starters, despite the accuracy of Ross Nesdale's throwing to Paddy Johns, Malcolm O'Kelly and Costello, too much of it was laboriously driven on. In point of fact, the Canadians seemed more willing to opt for top of the line ball and then move it away quickly.
Furthermore, too often it seemed that the Irish pack wanted to ape the Canadians in repeatedly taking the ball on. A classic example of this occurred in the third quarter when Kevin Maggs counter attacked like a knife through butter, but as the Canadians back-pedalled, Paddy Johns picked up and went to ground five yards on. All this did was over-commit Irish forwards, thereby enabling the Canadians to get their numbers right and regroup. By the time Elwood got the ball, his only option was to kick it diagonally.
Thus, while Ireland did many things well individually, there wasn't enough concentration on fast, quick ruck ball. For this reason, there still isn't compelling evidence that Ireland are training at the level of intensity at which they intend to play.
They began at that tempo, Elwood's `Connacht' reverse pass for Maggs just being a bit too high. In any case, a deft left-to-right transfer by McGuinness from Costello's pick-up enabled Nowlan to crash over from a close-in scrum for a score carved in Templeville Road.
In mitigation, the referee, the awful Claudio Giacomel, quickly began to leave his indelible imprint. The Italian game must be devoid of the advantage law and as the wave of 42 penalties (by my count) mounted up, Rees sandwiched a penalty by Elwood to leave it 8-6.
A skip pass by Elwood and a double skip pass by David Erskine might have yielded a try but Kieron Dawson couldn't put Maggs away and Elwood missed a couple of penalties. A tortuous afternoon was beckoning until McGuinness stretched out for the try following Erskine's drive to give Ireland half-time breathing space.
Importantly, it was preserved when Costello drove Al Charron back in the tackle after Dawson had first missed Rees and then threw out a horrid, off-balance pass beyond the feet of Maggs. But to Dawson's credit, he picked himself up with a very good second half, tackling, linking and winning ball.
Elwood stretched the lead to 186 with a post-interval penalty as the spoiling Canadians continued to live offside. They lacked the awareness in their support runners to make the most of openings - something the more quick-witted Italians are unlikely to do - and it was ironic that 36-year-old Mark Cardinal augmented the boot of Rees with their sole try when squirming over from a lineout drive after 45 minutes. Just like in Dunedin over a decade ago.
Ireland responded with their best spell of the match, perhaps partly galvanised by John Hutchinson's yellow card for a needless, nasty stamping on Malcolm O'Kelly. O'Kelly, typically, had just been first up to bring down Rees from a tap penalty, and then tackled Ron Snow from a kneeling position.
Towering in the line-out, O'Kelly carried on regardless. He was all over the pitch and looked the immense talent that he is. In truth, Hutchinson's more heinous crime to the game was in forever lying on the wrong side of the ruck.
In any case, the team and the crowd were further revived by one of innumerable Nowlan catches, and a drive by Costello. The spell of sustained continuity ended with Nowlan cheekily chipping his counterpart Scott Stewart under the posts only for Joe Pagano to cover the danger. It's probably as well that the unreconstructed Nowlan spent five years on a glorified pub team.
From the ensuing scrum Mark McCall, whose tackling was again first-class, set up second phase; McGuinness, Elwood and a classy, fingertip transfer by Rob Henderson put Maggs over in the corner.
Within three minutes McCall knocked Ron Toews and the ball back in a crunching tackle. Costello feinted off the base of the resulting scrum and brushed past Mike Schmid and Charron to score.
After another lull, the best was kept till last. Costello picked up from a scrum just outside the Irish 22 - the surprise zone and often the best area to attack from - and fed McGuinness. The scrum-half did brilliantly, feinting through the gap between Charron and Rees, slowing down and drawing Stewart to put Nowlan away from half-way.
Irish sides traditionally, and irritatingly, would duly concede a late try after that, but Paul Wallace ended the late Canadian pressure with a big hit on Canadian lock Mike James. A satisfactory and satisfying day at the office for Ireland.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins: Nowlan try, 5-0; 10: Rees pen, 5-3; 12: Elwood pen, 8-3; 14: Rees pen, 8-6; 34: McGuinness try, Elwood con, 15-6; 43: Elwood pen, 18-6; 45: Cardinal try, 1811; 56: Maggs try, 23-11; 59: Costello try, 28-11; 73: Nowlan try 33-11.
Ireland: K Nowlan (St Mary's); D Hickie (St Mary's), R Henderson (Wasps), M McCall (London Irish), K Maggs (Bristol); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's); N Popplewell (Newcastle, capt), R Nesdale (Newcastle), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), M O'Kelly (London Irish), D Erskine (Sale), V Costello (St Mary's), K Dawson (London Irish). Replacements: R Corrigan (Greystones) for Popplewell (69 mins); E Halvey (Shannon) for Dawson (73 mins).
Canada: S Stewart (UBCOB/Harlequins); J Pagano (Yeomen), D Lougheed (Balmy Beach), R Toews (Meraloma), W Stanley (Vancouver Kats/Blackheath); G Rees (CastawaysWanderers/Wasps, capt), J Graf (UBCOB); R Snow (Dogs, Nfdld/Newport), M Cardinal (James Bay), R Bice (Vancouver RC/Valence D'Agen), J Tait (Barrie RFC/Cardiff), M James (Burnaby Lake/Perpignan), M Schmid (Abbotsford/Rotherham), A Charron (Ottawa Irish/Moseley), J Hutchinson UBCOB/IBM Japan). Replacements: A Healy (James bay and CCSD) for Tait (53 mins); E Evans (UBCOB and IBM, Japan) for Bice (63 mins); C McKenzie (Burnaby Lake) for Schmid (71 mins).