Irish tackling to face another major test
IN THEIR last outing, the Irish `A' Development team had more ball than they knew what to do with. In their next outing, against the New Zealand Maoris in Palmerston North tomorrow (kick-off 7.30p.m., 8.30a.m. Irish time), that should not be a problem.
The New Zealanders have long since been billing this game as the Test match of this tour. and it has been looming almost scarily on the itinerary. Now, like the visit to the dentist, it's here and no amount of anaesthetic will make it go away.
The Maoris could, admittedly, put out an even more imposing side. In addition to the six in the All Blacks squad to play Fiji next Saturday, their coach Matt Te Pou has not picked any of the additional quintet who partook in yesterday's final trial for the All Blacks.
Nevertheless, as Brian Ashton readily concedes, it is the strongest selection which the Irish have yet faced on this development tour. A dozen of the starting line-up have played in the Super 12 this season, some are All Blacks in the making and hooker Norm Hewitt has been one on 16 occasions.
As Te Pou proudly points out, the Maoris are unbeaten in 16 matches over the last three seasons. Last season they beat the Bay of Plenty, 52-39 winners over the Irish two weeks ago, by 48-28, and Western Samoa by 28-15 at home, before overcoming Fiji (25-10), the Tongan Barbarians (26-19) and Tonga (29-20) away.
Basically then, it's time for the Irish to stand up and be counted. If there's any repeat of the porous defensive organisation and shoddy tackling which were a hallmark of the opening 69-16 and 74-15 defeats to Northland and the Academy and which have resurfaced sporadically in each game since - then another rout is virtually guaranteed.
So it is that Ashton has untypically found himself talking more about the Irish defence in the build-up to this game than the continuing evolution of the new 15-man running game. Realistically, the winning and the losing of this game hardly comes into the equation.
I think what we've got to do is set realistic objectives for the game in terms of our defence. That's got to be good all the way through the 80 minutes and not have lapses like in the last game, which cost us the bloody game," said Ashton yesterday.
"We've got to be more dynamic in the loose in terms of supporting the ball carrier. Getting players there in numbers, which we were quite poor at in the last game. We've also got to be far more clinical inside the opposition 22 when we get, opportunities - especially from set scrums.
"We've also got to show a little more directness in our general play in running at the opposition. as opposed to drifting crossfield.
Those are the four key objectives for this game." To help realise them, the management has been able to select a first choice XV for the first time on this tour albeit minus the departed duo of Eddie Halvey and David Humphries, as well as the injured Mick Lynch (infected eye). There are also one or two reservations.
Barry McConnell has earned the hooker's place though he has been sidelined from training by the sore cartilage he sustained by crashing into a post in training.
Packing down alongside him will be Justin Fitzpatrick and, not unexpectedly, the New Zealand born 30-year-old tight-head Gavin Walsh, who wins selection ahead of the squad captain Gary Halpin. Surprisingly, that rare and in-form talent Malcolm O'Kelly has been left out in deference to Brian Cusack, who will partner the new captain Gabriel Fulcher in the second-row. However, O'Kelly seems sure to get a run at some stage.
The departure of Halvey, and the relatively poor form of Dean Macartney. left little option in the back-row. The same applied at out-half, where Richard Governey will play outside Brian O'Meara, and first centre. where Rob Henderson will have Kevin Maggs as his latest midfield partner.
Again, this is due in part to the disappointing form of Justin Bishop and Alan McGrath as well as Lynch's injury, and also constitutes an attempt to shore up a previously porous area - the Maori outside centre Caleb Ralph scored two tries in the Bay of Plenty game.
Bishop is again tried on the right-wing, on the basis of a fleeting sign of some form in that position for 37 minutes against Thames Valley. Despite a resurfacing of old doubts about his tackling, Niall Woods has the onerous task of marking Morman Berry man remember him, the scorer of four tries for Northland in the tour opener although Berryman still looks a dodgy defender himself and Woods has been looking hungry and sharp in training.
Conor O'Shea, having equalled Tom Grace's record of three tries by an Irish tourist in New Zealand, brings some attacking threat from full-back.
Indeed, if they get the ball at all, there is some talent going forward in this team. There are two open side flankers again in what is probably the most mobile pack selected on tour so far. O'Meara has the best service, Governey is revelling in his role as linkman, and to augment Henderson's midfield penetration the outside three can all strike.
That's if they are fed, for there has been a tendency to leave the wings under-served while continually turning back inside from midfield to where all the heavy traffic is. Furthermore, it would be almost refreshing to see the Irish halves occasionally kick the ball, if only for a bit of variety.
In going from one extreme to the other, the Irish became almost one-dimensional against King Country who lay up offside all day and were perhaps prone to the odd chip over them. Berryman certainly is, and the number of times Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer kicked the ball - at least 20 - in yesterday's All Blacks trial was surprising.
But, for all that, as Ashton points, the Irish defence holds the key to this performance. "What we don't want to do is let them (the Maoris) into the game early on with two or three bloody soft tries. You can't play catch up rugby over here. Once a side gets in front they stay in front." Pat Whelan, in his talks to the team, has been recalling great Irish touring wins of yore - over Australia in '67 and '79. A win here would certainly be on that scale, maybe greater. "It would require a massive effort but history has proved it can be done. Just go for it."