Irish show spirit in overcoming tough US team
THE rain poured down, pools of water lay on a saturated surface and there was a mini lake inside one "25" at the Life College Stadium here in Atlanta last Saturday. But in the end Ireland overcame the conditions and the resolute challenge presented by the United States to record victory in this rugby test by, 25 points to 18.
Only once previously have I seen a match played on worse ground conditions, and that the teams provided a contest of such substance reflects well on them. As an exercise in preparation for the more stern tests ahead, this should prove extremely beneficial to Ireland.
Let it be stated that the United States team has improved considerably in many respects, not least technically, from the side which played in Dublin 14 months ago. In addition, the weather was such that Ireland had to trim their ambitions to take account of the conditions and had to revert in the second half to playing a much less expansive game than had been part of the game plan.
Nor was anything more impressive in the Americans' play than their tackling. If at times it bordered on the unorthodox it was very effective. They have, too, some very good players, none better than back row Dan Lyle. He had an outstanding first half, at the end of which Ireland led 16-11, and with that lead for Ireland came a keen awareness that they had a match of consequence on their hands.
Boundless energy and enthusiasm have long been part of the Americans' approach on the rugby field. They still possess those worthy attributes, but to them has been added a much better appreciation of other vital elements. They have an especially big pack, notably the back five and while they struggled at times to contain Ireland in the maul and initially in the scrum, they were superior in the line out in the first half and clearly indicated early on that there would be no easy way through their tackling.
Their agility and alertness to any opportunity had also been revealed, no doubt given added impetus by the tangible and psychological benefit of scoring a dropped goal in the first minute and going into a six-point lead by the 10th. Based on that beginning, there was more than a glimmer of hope for them that a famous win might be attainable.
That it was not in the end can be attributed to Ireland's change in tactics in the second half, when the ball was kicked into very good positions by Paul Burke, who came in as a replacement for the injured Eric Elwood, and to the complete turnaround in the trend in the line-out.
Neil Francis had an out standing second half in this crucial area and contributed much more with forceful driving and running, ball in hand. I have seldom seen him play better. Hooker Terry Kingston was very accurate with his throwing into the line-out and he had that task a lot as the Americans were forced back deep into their own half and often into their own "25".
Yet for all that territorial superiority Ireland never managed to put the match beyond recall. The Americans defended very well, and on a few occasions Ireland lost very good opportunities from scrums near the home side's line with wrong options being exercised. But one dreadful decision by a touch judge deprived Ireland of a possible try and a definite penalty when Simon Geoghegan was deemed to have put a foot in touch when he was at least a foot inside the field of play. After he passed to David Corkery, the flanker was taken out by a foul charge and Ireland awarded a penalty, but the touch judge kept his flag up and the chance was lost.
While the Americans did have problems with Ireland in the maul in the initial stages, they lived with them, but conceded three penalties, all of which Elwood kicked, showing a great deal of skill. Chris Saverimutto, at scrum-half, did try to move the ball on occasions, but the quick American back row were in to spoil him.
Lyle was especially influential, and although Victor Costello, in, particular, and David Corkery, did make quite a lot of ground at times, there was no way through, the American defence. Then, Just before the interval, wing Vaea Anitoni made a tremendous run after an intercept and it took a superb tackle by Geoghegan to save the Irish line. But the Americans did score from the attacking position established when number eight Richard Tardits got over the line after a scrum.
But Ireland struck an important blow within three minutes. Francis made a piercing run which was carried on by Costello, Popplewell took up the advance and was tackled, but Ireland retained possession and Richard Wallace got in at the right corner for a try. Elwood kicked a superb conversion and Ireland led 16-11 at the break. Although they had been near the American line on a few occasions in that half, the five-point lead could well have been a deficit.
The tactics in the second period were productive, but it was the Americans who scored the only try the period produced. It came in the 48th minute when Jason Walker, a second half replacement for flanker Rob Randell, got over the Irish line after a line-out and a throw to the front. This time Alexander kicked the conversion from the touchline and Ireland trailed 18-16.
But there was no panic by the Irish. With the line-out now being controlled and Burke offering the necessary response with very well-placed kicks, the Americans were under a lot of pressure, and conceded the penalties. Burke kicked one from in front of the posts in the 52nd minute after Ireland had almost got over the line. He added a second three minutes later from an acute angle on the left to stretch the Irish advantage to 22-18.
Yet for all Ireland's territorial superiority they could not put real distance on the scoreboard between themselves and the opposition, and there was always the chance of the Americans breaking out and scoring the try that would have imposed considerable pressure on Ireland in the closing stages.
It was not until the 79th minute, when Burke again kicked an excellent goal, that Ireland stretched their advantage to seven points. Burke had kicked three from three and Elwood, before his departure, four from six.
New cap in the centre, Kurt McQuilkin, did well, again revealing his strength and defensive ability. Richard Wallace took his try well, and while Corkery at times had difficulties with his handling, he got through a lot of valuable work. Costello was always dangerous going forward, but defence is not his strong point, and the Americans sealed off the danger from him in the second half when he moved wide to try to get the ball on the run, there was always a man to cover and tackle. The Irish scrum was never under pressure, and Gabriel Fulcher gave Francis some good support in the line out, while Paddy Johns also had a good second half.
The conditions, and the very effective tackling of the American backs, closed out the Irish three quarters. So, an Irish performance that was sufficient for the needs in the end. But the coming weeks will answer whether this Ireland team represents the future.