Ireland easy to read if they don't get offloading


ON RUGBY:Looking across the rest of the opening round of fixtures in this November window will be a cause of mixed feelings from an Irish viewpoint. If it comes to pass that the Springboks are as vulnerable in Murrayfield next Saturday and the Scots take advantage of this to subsequently usurp Ireland in the second tier of seeds for the World Cup draw, then fair enough.

Scotland may have been fortunate to have run into a weakened Australia on a midweek mudbath in Newcastle five days before the Wallabies hosted Wales in the first of a three-Test series, but strictly on current form, Ireland would deserve no better.

This in turn would run the risk of Ireland being permed with two heavyweights in their World Cup pool in 2015, which make this an especially damaging November window.

Admittedly, there is a one-in-four chance of Ireland and Scotland, whether eighth and ninth or vice versa in the rankings, being drawn in the same group with one of the top four seeds, which could in effect make all the focus on the rankings and ramifications relatively meaningless.

If the prize at stake when Ireland meet Argentina is seventh or eighth place, then it will have nothing like the implications of the corresponding arm wrestle four years ago when eight place was on the line.

In that scenario too, the importance of the Six Nations would be far greater than this November window, but with both this team’s current needs and that tournament in mind, Ireland are in acute need of a restorative win to avoid going into the new year on the back of a sixth successive defeat.

To that end, Ireland have to sharpen other arrows in their quiver. For all their pace and dexterity, and the invention of the reborn Freddie Michalak, even France’s hammering of Australia was predicated on the kind of physicality in defence and scrummaging power which is beyond Ireland right now.

In the professional era, Ireland have been blessed with some truly world-class, dynamic ball-carriers up front, such as Keith Wood, Victor Costello, David Wallace, Seán O’Brien and Stephen Ferris, but as this list highlights they tend to come along about one every generation.

Occasionally, two overlap, and Ireland have always looked more potent when they do, such as when Ferris and Wallace were combining in the Grand Slam, or Ferris and O’Brien in the World Cup.

Hence, trojanly though both Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry played on Saturday, to lose Ferris and O’Brien simultaneously for this autumn window was always going to leave them short of players capable of busting tackles. This in turn prohibits Ireland from generating quick ball.

It would help if Ireland had more of a developed offloading game, for which Brian O’Driscoll has been almost single-handedly responsible for a number of years. Ireland managed only five on Saturday, which admittedly was three more than the bludgeoning Boks, but France managed this in single passages of play when routing the under-strength Wallabies.

The offloading tally in Paris was 18-14 to Australia, while the All Blacks had 15 to the Scots’ one.

But it helps when, like the French, you have a carrier like Louis Picamoles, who is also blessed with a supreme ability to free his hands and make deft offloads, or when you are simply an All Black and unlike any other team on earth can do all the basics seemingly effortlessly.

Interestingly, the Pumas had 11 offloads in their win over Wales, two of them by back-rowers Juan Manuel Leguizamon and their wonderful warrior of a captain, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, along with a stunning support line by Juan Imhoff which enabled the winger to then round Leigh Halfpenny for as good a try as any scored this weekend.

It was tougher for Ireland to free their hands in those outside channels, and they did they have the same close-in support. Instead they focused on patient recycling, which ultimately made it look as if they were running into a brick wall against the Springboks.

But the more Ireland up their offloading quotient, the more potent they will be.

Argentina’s second try, by Gonzalo Camacho, albeit originating in a traditional Pumas maul, also demonstrated a width to their game which has gradually evolved over their debut campaign in the Championship.

Wales, it is true, often start the November window sluggishly, but even so, whether it’s also due to the influence of Graham Henry, this is not only a more match-hardened Pumas side than the one that lost here in the autumns of ’09 and ’10, it is also a more rounded and ambitious one.

Maybe it’s time to stop type-casting Argentina. That said, playing the Springboks ought still to be useful preparation, and with such a high injury toll and new combinations, Declan Kidney will want to keep changes to a minimum against them.

The replacement of Andrew Trimble before the hour just after a couple of mistakes may yet signal just one voluntary change on the wing come Saturday week.

In the interim, while there’s something more than a little wrong in not granting this match full Test status (every other game against the Pacific island teams in this window does) it does afford the Ireland management the elbow room to start last Saturday’s Test debutants and perhaps the Ulster trio of Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall.

If they don’t take a look at the Marshalls now, then when? With one eye to the 2015 World Cup, the team may as well be picked with the future in mind.

gthornley@irishtimes. com

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