Star-strangled Ireland fail to impress

 

RUGBY WORLD CUP: AS A launching pad for finally putting to right all those previous World Cup anti-climaxes, this was not the harum-scarum of Bordeaux against Namibia and Georgia four years ago. But Ireland’s muddled 22-10 win over the USA Eagles was the dampest of damp squibs.

Colourfully attired American supporters were sprinkled throughout the Stadium Taranaki as once again the Irish turned up in their thousands – ex-pats from all corners wearing the green and singing lustily. Considering few in this ground are sheltered from the kind of night on which you wouldn’t put the cat out, they deserved better and maintained their good spirits remarkably.

Television pictures cannot possibly convey how miserable it was. After four games in dry August conditions and nine days of dry-weather preparation, the rain teemed down all day and then, on cue, returned at kick-off, relenting briefly and then belatedly in the second half. Too late by half.

Slippy underfoot conditions were compounded by a capricious wind and a pill that resembled the proverbial bar of soap.

Even allowing for all that, and a predictably inspired American team drawing on the responsibility of commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Ireland were misguided, error-strewn and lacking in execution in leaving a trail of points behind them.

The concession of an intercept try with the last play was relatively superfluous, and it would be hard to deny the Americans their moment of joy when Paul Emerick picked off Gordon D’Arcy’s pass as Ireland strove for their fourth try.

However, the failure to gain a bonus point against the relative minnows had been put in stark contrast earlier in the day, in a rainless North Shore, when Australia scored four second-half tries to secure a bonus point 32-6 win over Italy.

Opening weekend nerves (especially by some of the bigger guns), goal-kicking problems, underdogs having their fired-up day in the wind, rain, sun or floodlights and serious issues about the all-in street fight that is the breakdown have been recurring themes of the first batch of matches. And this fell into all four categories.

It’s not so much the failure to register a commanding bonus point that rankles, it’s what it will do, or more to the point, won’t do, for the Irish squad’s mentality.

In every match thus far the bookies’ underdogs have come in under the handicap or match spread. Hence, from the All Blacks onwards, they’ve often cut slightly disappointing figures, but unlike Richie McCaw, Brian O’Driscoll was not inclined to accentuate positives.

The first words out of the captain’s mouth pitchside were “we didn’t play well”, adding: “job done but a lot to improve on.”

By the time he made it to the press conference, Declan Kidney had told his players the concession of such a late try leaves a worst taste because there’s no time for a response.

Acknowledging his players were understandably downbeat after coughing up an intercept try when seeking a bonus point one of their own, Kidney said: “It’s a double whammy, they will still judge themselves off that, they have high enough standards to know that there is more in us. That’s a positive and a negative, we just need to draw it out of ourselves.”

Highlighting the huge, palpable raw emotion of the USA team, he added: “The first game of the tournament is like the first game of the Heineken Cup multiplied by 20. It’s unbelievable how nervous everybody gets in the build-up to it, it’s not from a lack of effort, if we had a poor attitude out there I would say so but I think our attitude was probably that we were just too uptight and we have to learn to relax and let our ability take over.

“The fellas out there are good players and you know that’s not the norm for them.

“All the areas are things that are within our control and once they are within your control then you have something to work with.”

Nonetheless, between missed kicks and botched tries, Ireland left around 30 points or more behind.

“That is what the lads are frustrated with and had we been ticking the scoreboard better than we had been doing then everybody relaxes a bit, a few more passes go to hand and all of a sudden you run in a few. You saw Scotland once they got the lead, they relaxed and got another try, France against Japan, we didn’t quite do that in the last 10 minutes.”

Their key problem area is the breakdown and next up are the Wallabies and David Pocock. Too often the first and second men in either aren’t quick enough there or accurate enough when they do get there. Admittedly, Craig Joubert appeared to abdicate all responsibility by allowing a street fight at the breakdown. Despite a tackle count of 101 by the Eagles to Ireland’s 65, not once could one recall him penalising a player for going off their feet, which they did continuously.

Conor Murray, particularly, had no protection, while the Eagles still conceded the first five penalties in rapid fire time yet there was ne’er a hint of a yellow card.

“Australia is a whole different kettle of fish,” said Kidney. “To beat America was one thing, we just have to be smart when we play Australia next week. That’s what we have to do.”

One huge bonus is that, a little remarkably, nobody emerged injured save for a bang to Tony Buckley’s shoulder. With the nature of this week’s contest liable to inspire a better performance, one clings to the hope there are too many good players in this team for them not to have at least one big game in them.

But it’s based increasingly more on hope than hard evidence.