Alone He Stands

The fallout from Ireland’s record defeat to New Zealand continues. In the Indo yesterday, what we presume to be Deccie’s thoughts have been channeled through the grubby, ill-informed pen of Farmer Farrelly.  Apparently Deccie is ‘compromised’ in the position of head coach.

Where does one start? Well, let’s take it point by point.

Money is now the core issue, according to Hugh.  True, there looked to be a bit of corner-cutting on this tour, but Deccie’s hand-picked coaching team don’t exactly look like they were put together on a shoestring.

That the rugby setup in Ireland is to the detriment of the national team? Every other coach (bar none) would love the type of player access that Deccie has – he can tell their coaches when to play them, and bring them into camp largely whenever he wants. Key men like Johnny Sexton and Fez played more for Ireland than for their province last season.  Go tell it to the French coaches, who tried to fly Jean Marc Doussain out as cover before the World Cup semi-final, but had to wait for his release until after the week’s Top 14 game.

That Deccie would dearly love to have brought Ian Madigan on tour? Bring him then. You are the coach – you have the right to pick who you want. Maybe prepare by picking him for the Wolfhounds or the Baabaas game.

That Deccie is hamstrung by the situation in Connacht? Of course, we’d all like to have 4 competitive provinces, but good players in Connacht get routinely ignored by Deccie – Fionn Carr was left kicking his heels while Ian Dowling and Denis Hurley were capped in the North America tour in 2009. Tiernan O’Halloran didn’t even make the extended training squad.

That our lack of depth at tighthead is the provinces’ fault? In the November series of 2010, we played 4 games and picked John Hayes twice, Mushy once and Tom Court once. Why weren’t Jamie Hagan, Declan Fitzpatrick or Ronan Loughney given any game time?  Or, erm, Mike Ross, who was first-choice Leinster tighthead at the time.

The Churchill Cup and the Sevens circuit? The Churchill Cup has been abandoned as part of the (agreed) summer tour timetable which had Ireland in NZ for 3 Tests – the US and Canada played Italy this year in the same unified schedule. The ideas that Sevens will help the development of the national 15-a-side team is laughable – it’s like saying 5-a-side soccer will unearth the next Cristiano Ronaldo – the skill sets are entirely different – as evidenced by the complete dearth of former Sevens players at the top level.  The Welsh sevens team has in recent years produced no starters and just one occasional extended squad man, Aled Brew.

The excuses for Kidney and his team are coming thick and fast, but we suspect they won’t wash with an educated rugby public. Farrelly would be better off going back to praising Niall Scannell and calling Peter O’Mahony the new Ruchie – at least some people will believe that, no-one is buying this rubbish.

Ireland: Season in Review aka The Kidney Clock

At this stage, after 11 months and 17 tests, only three of which produced memorable performances, our over-riding emotion is relief… that it’s over. Ireland’s season started dismally with four desperately scratchy pre-World Cup warm-ups. It ended horribly with a 60-0 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand. In between it huffed and puffed, briefly sparking into life intermittently only to collapse in a heap again. Ireland produced one good backs-to-the-wall performance in each series, offering themselves a shot at redeeming the season (or genuine glory in the case of the World Cup) but couldn’t see the deal through to the end.

The year will be characterised by three pallid performances: against Wales in the World Cup, England in the Six Nations and the final Hamilton Massacre, and epotimised by three passive defensive moments from our centres – formerly the bulwark of our defence: Keith Earls ushering Ooooooooooooh Manu Tuilagi in in the Aviva, Ferg being bumped badly by George North, and Sunny Bull’s ruthless treatment of Paddy Wallace in Hamilton.

The Coaching Ticket

Kidney and his team finish the season under serious pressure. Not before time, a hugely supportive media are finally asking questions of the performances, game plan and selection. This was Ireland’s third poor Six Nations in a row, and the win-draw-loss record for the year stands at 6-1-10 with four of those wins coming against Italy (twice), the USA and Russia. So we’re not winning. And yet blooding new talent is a can that gets kicked down the road at every series – for fear we might lose.

We need to get the team right for the World Cup. The Six Nations is our annual target, we can’t change now. You don’t experiment in New Zealand.

Next year’s Autumn internationals have already taken on an air of must-win to ensure second seeding for the World Cup. Then it’s the Six Nations again – so what’s the solution?

To be fair, new players have been introduced to the system, but more by accident than design. Injury continues to be the single biggest driving force to get new faces into the team. It was responsible for Sean O’Brien and Mike Ross’ belated entrances to test level (after being overlooked for the entire November before  immediately becoming un-droppable), and McFadden, Tuohy, Fitzpatrick, Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLoughlin would probably still be awaiting test debuts if it wasn’t for injury to others.

Ryan has been a starter for all of five tests, yet is a key man already … at the age of 28. Ireland survive week-to-week, with little in the way of forward planning. Does Kidney have a long-term plan, you wonder, for Iain Henderson, the outstanding Ulster lock who has shone in the U20 World Cup and has already impressed at Pro12 level?

Dan Tuohy, for example, was in terrific form during the Six Nations but was overlooked for a way-below-par Donncha O’Callaghan and Mike McCarthy. For the summer tour, he was eventually elevated to first choice. It would have benefitted him to have tasted test rugby during the Six Nations before being plunged in against the World champions. Ireland had home games against Scotland and Italy that they were never in danger of losing, but Deccie stuck to the usual suspects. McCarthy himself was surplus to requirements in NZ despite being capable of the type of impact that Donncha only makes when windmilling on the touchline these days.

When Kidney is forced to delve deeper into the well (again, through injuries), he tends to look southwards. Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony managed to elbow their way into the squad by generating column inches becoming regular starters at Munster  – a source of huge frustration in Ravenhill where better and more consistent seasons from Craig Gilroy and Chris Henry went virtually unrecognised – Ireland doesn’t need more inter-provincial carping, but Kidney doesn’t do himself, or the fans, any favours in this regard.

It’s hard to see how things will improve. Deccie now faces into the last 12 months of his contract. Unless his paymasters in the IRFU have lost their minds, they won’t be offering Kidney a new contract before the Autumn games or even the Six Nations. (In truth, they will probably be looking for a new coach to start in Autumn 2013). Already an embattled leader, Deccie will have to face questions about his winding-down contract and whether he’s effectively living on borrowed time. It’s not the best point from which to move forward.

Playing Personnel

The good news is that Ireland have plenty of good players. Not all opponents will be as good as New Zealand, so we don’t have to worry ourselves overly about how, say, Rob Kearney stacks up against Israel Dagg. It’s more how Rob Kearney stacks up against Ben Foden (ah, that’s better). Several individuals performed well for Ireland this season: Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien were the pick of the bunch. Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton have all shown increased authority and fierce commitment. Paul O’Connell was routinely magnificent when off the treatment table – add in our solid tighthead prop and Ireland have the guts of a quality team right there.

Others have found the going tough. Conor Murray had a poor season with province and country, seemingly caught between his duties as scrum half and being an auxiliary flanker. He has the talent to recover, and the hope will be that never seeing Dutchy Holland again Rob Penney’s coaching can help him improve. Fergus McFadden is a game fellow, but not an international wing. Peter O’Mahony’s lack of beef was cruelly exposed by New Zealand – he needs to bulk up and sharpen his tackling technique on his left shoulder, and while the man he stepped in for in Hamilton, Jamie Heaslip, couldn’t be faulted for effort, he never hit top gear.

It’s time to say goodbye to a few great servants. Nobody will forget Ronan O’Gara’s contribution to Irish rugby, but at 35 and with his tactical kicking game looking more than a touch dated, this is a good place to part ways. Ian Madigan waits in the wings. Donncha O’Callaghan is another unforgettable servant of Irish rugby, but has come to epitomise Kidney’s loyalty to a select few and has been our bête noir all season; the sight of him entering the fray only to give away a needless lineout penalty and then disappear from view ought to be his last contribution of a busy, if over-extended, test career. Better players are already in place and Devin Toner can be added to the list next year.

Inside centre is becoming a problem position for Ireland. Paddy Wallace has had a mixed international career to say the least – three World Cups (!) and the silkiest pass of an Irish 12 in many a year, yet it’s the bloodied face of 2009 and the battered defence of 2012 that people will remember. He deserved better than he got on Saturday, but again, he has the look of yesterday’s man. Gordon D’arcy is a curious case – hopeless in the Six Nations, but robust since then with BOD back outside him, he is the man you don’t miss until he’s gone. The feeling persists that we need more attacking threat than he offers at 12, but until such a player presents himself, it’s hard to see who can be put in there.

JJ Hanrahan and Luke Marshall look like future test players, but both are probably at least 2 or 3 years away yet. McFadden is a more immediate option, and he would improve his case if he can depose Dorce from the Leinster team first – it’s a bit silly to criticise Kidney for favouring Dorce there when Joe Schmidt does the same. Nevin Spence was the heir apparent to BOD at 13 last year but has slipped behind Darren Cave in his favoured position – to be honest, 12 looks more natural fit, but a Spence/Cave partnership looks a bit bosh-tastic – i’ts a big year for him, but if he does manage to get starts in Ulster, he could fit in for Ireland.

Of course, BOD might have to move inside, a la the first test in NZ, to shore up Ireland’s problem position. This would continue the succession at 13, where, amazingly, and in contrast to inside centre, we seem to have plenty of options. Keith Earls has grown immeasurably in the role this season, and wants to play there full time. Darren Cave arguably outplayed him this season at provincial level (and kept him on the wing through their underage careers), and is better than his 7-minute lose-lose cameo illustrated. Eoins Griffin and O’Malley are also in the picture.

Next Season

Here’s five things Ireland have to do next season to get the show back on the road.

1. Hire an attack coach

Attack with ball-in-hand has long been the weakest part of Ireland’s game, and failing to appoint a dedicated specialist to the role has been Kidney’s biggest error this year. The players are crying out for a new voice and new ideas. Worse still, Ireland’s defence has slipped off since Les Kiss has been asked to double-up. Kidney and the IRFU have the summer to make the appointment. We can probably forget about Schmidt stepping into this role, for the immediate future – for a start, it would be Gatty/Eddie 2000 all over again, and Schmidt would be mad to go anyway.

2. Cap Madigan and Gilroy

Both deserved to go on the summer tour to New Zealand – of the 3 players nominated for IRUPA young POTY, only O’Mahony made it on the plane. This autumn both should get their chance – Gilroy is a natural succesor to Denis Hickie on the left wing, and Ian Madigan is the best young fly-half in the country. The suspicion remains that Kidney would run a mile from his style of play, but he would offer thrilling impact from the bench for Ireland and would be an unknown quantity outside of Ireland. Both should start against Fiji, at the very least.

3. Beat South Africa

Ireland need a good autumn series. They should have the measure of Argentina in Dublin, but that’s a game its hard to look good in – the Pumas tend to come over here with chips prominently positioned on shoulders and seem oddly content to lose but make Ireland look rubbish. That seems to mean we need to beat South Africa to declare the series a success. Lose that game, even with a good performance, and the vultures will start to circle. No pressure then!

4. Win back the fans

Kidney has lost the backing of Leinster and Ulster supporters in what has become a provincially-drawn rugby public. Munster-centric selections, poor results and dull, grinding rugby have seen to that. Even loyalists from Munster are teetering, tiring of the gnomic utterances and failure to move on. Supporting Ireland is no craic at all these days. If we are to avoid another Six Nations of tedious griping and in-fighting, Kidney needs to give the paying fans a bit of excitement and get them back on his side. Positive, form-based selections and some attractive rugby would be a start.

5. Embrace the Provinces

A worrying theme from the latter portion of the season has been Kidney seemingly turning the provinces into an enemy rather than providers of players to the national team. Rather than tapping into what has won Leinster back-to-back H-Cups, he appears threatened by it, continually droning on about test rugby being much harder than provincial rugby and seemingly unwilling to pair the Leinster half-backs or get Sexton to play flat on the gainline. His dig at Ulster not giving Fitzpatrick experience was embarrassing and unnecessary. Kidney must embrace what is going on at provincial level, or risk irrelevance.

At least four of the above look like long shots. Ireland have regressed badly in the last twelve months. Wales are now far ahead of us, and somehow we have allowed an England side high on endeavour but low on talent to pass us out. Even with the changes above, we suspect Kidney is no longer capable of rousing this Ireland team to any sort of consistency. In all likelihood we’re staring down the barrel of two wins at best in the Six Nations and two from three in the autumn series.

In the interests of some balance, Kidney is badly served by his paymasters in Lansdowne Road – it seems only the Six Nations (which fills the coffers) has priority – and the immediate results-based incentives exacerbate Deccie’s conservative nature. We bet Robbie Deans, Steve Hansen and Heineke Meyer have to tell their bosses who they envisage coming through from youth level in this RWC cycle – we doubt the IRFU even bring it up.

There is a history of messy successions in professional Irish rugby (Brian Ashton, Gatty, Eddie, Deccie at Leinster, Eddie at Connacht, Brian McLaughlin, Gary Ella) and we don’t expect this one to be any different – expect himming, hawing and no little politicking, but the reality is this – the Kidney Clock ticks onwards, and Ireland will have a new coach in situ in fifteen months time.

Last Tango in Hamilton

Egg was on a drinking scouting mission in Munster on Saturday night, and the punters could be neatly split into 2 groups – those who had seen it and those who hadn’t. The former group had pallid, zombie-like faces (rather like Ireland themselves) and the latter had those wide-eyed just-seen-a-wrecked-train macabre fascination faces where they pretend they don’t want to see highlights, but they really do. When the bar obliged with extended highlights (i.e. all the BNZ tries), their faces slowly turned into the death stare ones.

It was not pretty. Most of us expected Ireland to come out with a performance somewhere between the first and second tests, allowing for the expected improvement from New Zealand, and a defeat (and tour) with honour. What we got was a tired, disengaged and passive dog’s dinner of a performance – only the front five emerged with anything approaching credit and the back row and three-quarter line were under massive pressure and buckled pretty early on. It was a tough day at the office.

The idea that Deeen Caddah would be missed was dismissed within 2 or 3 minutes – Chief’s inside backs Aaron Cruden and Sunny Bull were imperious, attacking (and breaking) the Irish line at will – the Irish plan for SBW that had been executed so diligently for the first and second test failed, and when Cruden went off, BNZ were doing better than a point a minute – we can thank Beauden Barrett taking it a little handier on his debut for it not being a 70- or 80-burger.

The other alleged chink in the BNZ armour was the back row – Kieran Read was injured, Ruchie was at 8 and Sam Cane and Liam Messam were making their first starts of the series. Well, all three were regal – Ruchie seemed to be everywhere, even soaring like Shaggy for restarts, and Cane and Messam were to the manor born.

With the inside backs and back row running backwards, there was always likely to be trouble, and so it proved.

So what can we say? Well, the first thing to point out is that this was the 17th test in the 11th month of the season, and was 7 days after the best, and most intense, performance of the year – the tanks were simply empty. There was probably an understanding that BNZ would come out like express trains, and the plan was to build a Maginot Line and hope Ireland were still in it after 20 minutes. In reality, it was exactly like the Maginot Line – BNZ just went through and around it at their leisure. Once the third try went in, heads dropped, the tiredness manifested itself and it was game over. Only Bob, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan and Mike Ross didn’t miss a tackle.  A performance of this level would have lost to Italy or Scotland.

Long as the season was, it has been no shorter in England or Wales.  Neither had to face New Zealand, but South Africa and Australia are hardly shrinking violets of the rugby world.  They came out of their (dead rubber) final tests with an aggregate losing margin of a single point.  Ireland lost by 60.

This was Ireland’s first doughnut sunce the Argentina tour in 2007, aka the Alarm Bells Tour, when Eddie’s Untouchables went to Poland, and the rest dirt tracked it to the other side of the world. The difference here was we had kickable penalties, but creditably went for tries – it meant we suffered a record defeat, but the players were right – taking the 3 was the cowardly option.

But still, the record books will say this was Ireland’s worst defeat to New Zealand – and this team is better than that. The muddled rabble we finished up as featured 12 players who played in the HEC final plus Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Keith Earls. The folks in charge are going to have to take some heat here, just as they took credit for the changes that oh-so-nearly got a victory in Christchurch.

Lets start with the lightning rod that is Paddy Wallace. Firstly, Wallace was the best 12 in Ireland this season, and his set up for Dan Tuohy’s try in the HEC final was a thing of beauty. He has been a mainstay of Deccie’s squads right the way through his reign and is in the form of his career, but he wasn’t selected for this tour. It looked odd at the time, and it looked even odder when he was parachuted in from a beach in Portugal for the third test. Wallace’s size and lack of sharpness was ruthlessly targeted by New Zealand, but it was the management who put him in there. Deccie said before the game it was Wallace’s choice to hang out with his family instead of going to New Zealand to gather splinters, but it was Deccie’s choice to fly him over and he judge Wallace ready for SBW – fail. 

Deccie’s line of choice on this tour is how great a step-up test rugby is from provincial rugby – but it’s worth recalling that during the Six Nations, when Irish players are released from camp late in the week for routine Pro12 turkey-shoots, Joe Schmidt was reluctant to put them into the team ahead of those who have trained with the team all week.   And yet, for a test away to New Zealand, Wallace flew across the world from a end-of-season family holiday, arrived on Wednesday and started a test against the best team in the world on Saturday.

We’ve a sneaky feeling budget constraints affected the tour adversely.  The touring panel always looked two to three members light.  This contributed to the Paddy Wallace disaster, and also resulted in the likes of Gilroy and Madigan spending the summer at home when they could have been given a taste of test rugby (how beneficial it would have been is, however, hard to quantify).  Gerry Thornley today alluded to the scheduled flights home probably requiring some players to pack their bags before the game in an attempt to save on costs, effectively treating the final test as a stop-off on the way to the airport.  We thought the days of corner-cutting in elite Irish sport were behind us.  Perhaps not…

A surprising bone of contention from our Munster friends was the decision to bring on Rog after 55 minutes (again). We assumed they’d be supportive of the favourite son, but not any more. In this instance, it was effectively telling Fergus McFadden that the national management considered Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls as better centres than he is. The perception in Munster is that Deccie is afraid of what the always-quotable O’Gara will say in the papers if he doesn’t play. There was huge frustration that Ian Madigan wasn’t there to come off the bench and get the type of experience that Deccie Fitzpatrick will find so priceless in years to come.

Allied to all the above was the number of players who had games much far below their usual standards (from the ultra-experienced captain BOD, to our best player in the first 2 tests SOB, to Kevin McLaughlin on his 4th cap) – the bodies and minds had nothing left to offer and gave up.

And when that happens, it’s the management who should be asked questions – this team looks muddled and in need of new direction. Failure to back up good performances is a long-standing failing of this group.  We aren’t going go down the Deccie-must-go route (yet), but at the very least there is need for a dedicated attack coach to free up Les Kiss to get back to what he knows; some pro-active gameplan to maximise the resources at the coaches disposal; and a medium-term selection policy that builds towards RWC15 – we are treading water at an alarming rate at present, and this is not good enough.

Two damning statistics from this season – firstly, leaving aside Tier 2 teams, invitational sides and Italy, our win-draw-loss record was 2-1-10 – nowhere near acceptable. Of this 1-1-1 came from the type of once-off reactionary performances we have grown used to (Australia, France in Six Nations, New Zealand second test), leaving 1-0-9 from common-or-garden performances. That speaks for itself.

Secondly, a player like Chris Henry, who is old enough to be considered an experienced player, but young enough to still be in his prime by the next RWC; someone who ruled the breakdown in Thomond Park in the HEC quarter final, and is in the form of his career in a position where we have occasionally struggled, played only the last 15 minutes of a season of 1,360 minutes of test rugby. In contrast, the 4th choice lock in Munster, whose top level career is essentially over, was first choice right up until the end of the 14th test of the season. Do these speak of a management team with an acceptable knowledge of the players at their disposal?

This was a dispiriting and hugely demoralising end to a poor season from Ireland. Let’s hope its a low point, that the players make the most of a well-deserved holiday, and that the management get a big huge mirror and stare intently at themselves in it.

Last Men Standing

This game was always going to be a case of ‘Last Men Standing’, and with the rejuvenated Heaslip and D’arcy adding to the list of those unable to take part, that has come to pass.  With that in mind Deccie has done pretty much all he can to get his best side on the pitch. 

The tight five – hugely impressive so far – remains the same and in the back row Peter O’Mahony replaces Jamie Heaslip directly.   It’s the right call.  There are plenty who would have liked to have seen Sean O’Brien move to 8, but he has little experience there, and has never looked comfortable at the back of the scrum.  Besides, he’s come of age as a Genuine Openside (that’s one phrase we’ll be hearing a lot less of from now on) on this tour.  Peter O’Mahony played a reasonable amount at No.8 towards the back end of this season, and looked the part.  His innate footballing ability lends itself well to the role, and it could be his best position.

D’arcy is replaced by Paddy Wallace.  No doubt Kidney thought hard about giving the ROG-Sexton axis a go from the start, or giving the tantalising, if flawed, Earls-BOD partnership another go after a more-miss-than-hit showing in the first test.  It looks like he made the best choice by picking a natural 12 playing in a position he’s most comfortable rather than shoe-horning Rog into the team players into unfamiliar roles.

That said, it does rather show up the folly of leaving Wallace at home in the first place.  Paddy arrives fresh off the Mediterranean beaches, so it’s asking a lot of him to replicate his brilliant end-of-season form.  His last competitive action was when he played (superbly) in the Heineken Cup final, which is over a month ago now – though he did play the full game against the Barbarians –  so to expect him to bound off the long haul flight and pick up where he left off seems a tall order.  Why Kidney brought Darren Cave when he had cover at 13 in the form of Earls, and left his only natural alternative to D’arcy (excluding McFadden, who he obviously does not see as a 12) is anybody’s guess.  It looked a strange call at the time, and looks stranger again now.

The good news is that Keet Earls is back.  With Tommy Bowe injured and Earls missing in the last test, Ireland have lacked cutting edge out wide.  Earls, of course, has made no secret of his desire to play centre.  It would be nice to have given him the chance to further his claims to the outside centre berth in this match, but with our best wingers injured, needs must.  Trimble and McFadden are honest, hard-working players, but they don’t have the strike running or finishing ability Earls does.  His presence out wide will make a difference.

New Zillund have injury concerns of their own.   Kieran Read and Deeeen Cadah are injured, and McCaw has been moved to No.8, where he is notably less effective.  If (big if) Ireland can reproduce the breakdown intensity of last week and bring a little more dynamism out wide (I’m looking at you, Keet) they can once again be in the shake-up at the business end of the match.

Bore Da. On the Hole It Aint Rite [sic]

When we read the Irish Times’ sport section on Monday, the main thing that jumped out at us was Gerry’s return to full frontal teenage girl gushing over Deccie – Il Duce was not only vindicated by Conor Murray’s selection, but “utterly vindicated“. Little did we know that it was Toland’s analytical and thoughtful deconstruction of some of Nigel Owens refereeing calls that would cause waves – after all, it seemed to be accepted fact that Owens got at least one big call wrong (the wheeled scrum) with significant consequences.

Toland’s article was fairly typical for him – analytical and detailed, always a good read but occasionally confusing, and something you need to concentrate on. It wasn’t a rant or a frothing moan, but quite obviously written from an Irish perspective. It certainly was not worth Nigel Owens getting his two penn’oth in, that’s for sure. But he did, wading in on twitter (on which he is a highly prolific and grammatically wayward participant) and claiming Colonel Liam was “wrong in law” and derided him for being biased and printing “lies“. Lies!!

There was no need for Owens to get involved – he is paid to referee as he sees fit and Toland is paid to write what he sees fit.  It might be frustrating to read articles you consider incorrect, but it’s really part of the job.  There was no personal abuse and no impugning of Owens’ neutrality, just a dry critique. Many moons ago, Romain Poite said to Egg in Bruxelles that he gets abusive communication from fans all the time (quelle surprise!) – you’d imagine all referees do, and it’s something they learn to live with.

Owens’ toy de-pramming had one immediate impact – huge interest in Toland’s original article. As they say in Hollywood, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the IT and Toland milked it for all it was worth.  Poor delicate little lamb Liam was “disappointed” that Nigel disagreed with him, so much so in fact that he managed to fill a few column inches saying the d-word no less than four times.

Still, it is worth pointing out that the Irish rugby capos (e.g. Deccie and his apostles) roll out the blame-the-ref approach all the time. Axel had been in the setup about 10 minutes when he started the familiar moan after the France game. And faithful junta lapdog, bearded leather legend Gerry, famously blamed the referee or his assistants for results in 4 of Ireland’s 5 2011 Six Nations games and before Leinster’s semi-final in Clermont this season, took the bizarre step of blaming Wayne Barnes for a game that had not even yet been played. It’s tiresome enough for the fans, so it’s easy to imagine the referees get sick of it as well.

It’s also worth highlighting the reaction after Owens’ performance in the Munster-Northampton match earlier this season. In what turned out to be the most permissive piece of refereeing all season (and was a catalyst for mid-season tightening of ruck rules, ultimately to Munster’s detriment against Ulster), Nigel Owens famously allowed sealing off, entering from the side of the ruck and going off your feet in the 41 phases leading up to Radge’s amazing drop goal. The reaction from Gerry?

Nigel Owens, at the centre of yet another taut finish and protracted end game [signalled] Ronan O’Gara had delivered.

That’s consistency alright – it’s no wonder Owens feels he is only getting lambasted because Ireland lost. And what of Gerry’s favourite statistic – the penalty count? Why, that was 11-9 in Ireland’s favour! Maybe not so biased after all then.

Typically, and hilariously, Hugh Farrelly has taken another opportunity to point the blame at the internet for the whole affair, even though Toland’s  piece was published in print meeja – which we all know is inherently better than the ‘underpants brigade’  anyway.  Now to order some takeaway and sit in a darkened room…

Back Up The Truck

We didn’t see that one coming – an intense and physical performance that could (should?) have given Ireland their first win over BNZ since forever. Although, with 20-20 hindsight, it’s clear the occasion was symptomatic of two regular occurrences that perhaps should have been closer to the fore of our minds.  The first is Ireland’s ability to deliver occasional, one-off outstanding performances, seemingly out of nowhere and usually when at their lowest ebb and after a bout of soul searching.  The second is New Zealand’s tendency to do a wobbly on big occasions (ref. France 1999, 2007, 2011).  All week long we could only see the significance of the first game in Christchurch since the earthquake as being a catalyst to them unleashing all hell on Ireland – for some reason it never occurred to us that the emotion of the occasion might get to them.  And it certainly did.

We’ve been intensely critical of Kidney in the week, so let’s give him his due.  His selection, gameplan and substitutions all came off.  Splendidly.  D’arcy played well, Murray had his best game in a year, and bagged a great try, and Kevin McLaughlin proved he can be Ireland’s Tom Wood – even better perhaps.  Turns out there’s a place even at the highest level for a workhorse who does pretty much everything quite well.  And when Locky began to fatigue, Kidney wasted no time in bringing on O’Mahony, who had a marvellous impact.  We thought replacing D’arcy with ROG looked a lily-livered substitution (we were crying out for Ferg to move to 12 and Zebo to come on), but ROG played well and Sexton continued to have a very fine match at 12.

The gameplan was a similar triumph.  Ireland had been excellent at the breakdown last week, but by committing to it so heavily, perhaps it cost them out wide.  Credit, then, for sticking to their guns and targeting the breakdown again and resisting the temptation to simply fan out and not compete for the ball.  Ireland were again outstanding at the ruck, but this time made their tackles and chased superbly – New Zealand’s gameplan is based around committing minimal men to the breakdown and keeping numbers in the line, this time they were forced to bring 4 and 5 men into rucks, removing some of the openfield threat exhibited last week. Fergus McFadden’s performance epitomised the turnaround; error-strewn and given the run around by Julian Savea last week, on Saturday he chased like a dervish and was feral in contact. New Zealand were rattled and looked uncomfortable not being in control of the situation.

The pack were outstanding to a man.  The front row deserve particular credit.  Come to think of it, so do the locks and the loose forwards.  Rory Best, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien have genuine world class credentials.  It beggars belief that Donnacha Ryan was a Munster reserve until this season; he has a streak of badness in his face, and he backs it up with his ferociously aggressive play.  Jamie Heaslip silenced his critics.

Now for something we don’t like doing – blaming the result on the ref.  We’ve grown tired of this easy way out over the last 18 months (Gerry, hilariously, blamed the ref or his officials for no less than four of our results in the 2011 Six Nations), but today we’re going to give in and take it.  Ireland lost the game because of a classic spineless hometown decision by Nigel Owens in penalising Ireland at the final scrum.  We can claim no expertise when it comes to this facet of the game, but we’re happy to lean on the knowledge and experience of Emmet Byrne, David Flatman and self-confessed scrum nerd extraordinaire Duncan Bell – all of whom took to social media or the radio to say it should have been a penalty to Ireland, not New Zealand, an opinion echoed by Steve Hansen in the aftermath of the game. It was reminiscent of the harebrained decision Owens gave in Thomond Park when he penalised a forward-marching Northampton scrum when it wheeled.  Whatever your thoughts on Poite and his refereeing style – at least you know where you stand with him, and that the forward-moving pack will get the decision.

Now, back to a familiar question.  Can the real Ireland please stand up?  Which team are we?  The one which lost 42-10 or the one which came within a wrong decision of winning in Christchurch?  Kidney’s Ireland have earned a reputation for occasional greatness followed (and preceded) by mush.  The result is a handful of truly memorable games, but little to show for them.  This isn’t really an acceptable pattern for an international team which seeks to be among the world’s best.  Ireland have shown themselves capable of scaling giddy heights and playing with wired intensity, but only when they have a wellspring of emotion on which to draw.  At the very least this group needs to learn to hit the ground running; they appear to sleepwalk through the first match in any given series and respond from there.  If they have designs on winning the Six Nations next Spring – as surely they must – they will need to reduce the range of a wildly fluctuating performance graph.  Ireland must now go to the final test and play in a similar vein.  It’s a tall order, but if they do so, we can consider the tour a success; something which seemed unlikely last week.  Another thrashing and we’re back where we were.  And we really don’t want to go back there.

P.S. how bad was Piri Weepu’s pass for the first Carter drop attempt? It was flying over his head and on the wrong foot. Carter creditably managed to get his kick out which SOB partially blocked down. The ridiculous ‘touched in flight’ law meant NZ were awarded a 5m scrum – O’Brien may have been better taking the chance that Carter’s kick was going to go wide. This is a law which should be changed.

Damage Limitation

Kidney’s team to face New Zealand in the second test in Christchurch bears all the hallmarks of a damage limitation exercise – the hatches have been well and truly battened down. If the team for the first test looked designed to have a cut and try to play fast and loose, this has the looks of a rainy-day selection designed to muck in in the trenches and keep the score down.  With Earls missing through injury and Mike Ross back fit, two changes were inevitable.  Kidney has made two more, with Andrew Trimble replacing Simon Zebo and Leinster’s Kevin McLaughlin replacing Peter O’Mahony.

Conor Murray wins this week’s Fortunate Starter Hailing From Munster Of The Week Award; presumably his defensive strengths have kept him in the team (in keeping with the theme of keeping the score down) beccause it can’t have been his service to the backline, which hasn’t been good for Ireland since the World Cup match against Italy.  He and Sexton just don’t look like a happy partnership, but Kidney is determined to persist with it.

By contrast, Simon Zebo is a touch unlucky – after being fast-tracked into the squad and team, it’s hardly sensible (or a ringing endorsement) to be dropped after your first cap.  Andrew Trimble takes his place on the left wing, when he’s more used to the right, and was the obvious choice to deal with the threat of Savea.  The Ulster wing is a physical, commited defender and has much more experience on the right wing than McFadden (who has played 11, 12 and 13 more often than 14).  Trimble (14) and Zebo (11) looked a more balanced pairing, and Zebo’s absence – coupled with that of Earls – robs the backline of its only source of top-line speed. Still, as Deccie says:

We could (switch), but left wing and right are two totally different positions, so if you’re exposed on the right you’re definitely going to be exposed on the left.

If the positions are so different, why are the players not playing in the roles with which they are most familiar?  Answers on a postcard please.

By all means pick your best defenders, but at some point they will break our line and we’ll have to scramble; pace is an asset in defence as well as attack.  Again, we have a centre playing out of position on the wing while real wings twiddle their thumbs – New Zealand will doubtlessly attack Ferg again, so we have to hope he has learned the harsh lessons from the first test. There was no need to drop him altogether – he could have moved inside, which brings us neatly to ….

Gordon D’arcy, who has a chance to show he’s not done and dusted yet.  Will we see the D’arcy who looked a busted flush in the Six Nations, or the one who took flat ball over the gainline in the Heineken Cup final, and had a double-digit tackle count in the semi-final? Lets hope its the latter, but either way, it’s a retrograde step in the long-term development of the team.

McLaughlin looks a good pick, and deserves a chance to show what he can do after an excellent season with Leinster.  He’s one of those who might get caught in between being a great provincial servant, and a test level rugby player, but unfashionable workhorses can surprise on the upside too.  He’s been cast as Leinster’s Jean Bouilhou before – now he has to become Ireland’s Tom Wood.

This is a team that gives Ireland no chance of winning the game, even if everyone plays out of their skin.   With a one-paced backline, the biggest backrow available and mismatched, but robust half-backs, it’s hard to see where Ireland can hurt New Zillund.  Squad development has also taken a back seat, with all four changes significantly increasing the age profile of the team.  The tour has become about avoiding embarrassment, getting the games out of the way and getting home with what little dignity can be salvaged – Deccie will consider a defeat by less than 32 points a moral victory.  Ian Madigan and Craig Gilroy might be better off at home after all.

Please don’t be Clermont

Next season’s HEC draw has been tortuous completed in Dublin today – the myriad of rules confused just about everybody, including us, but its finished, and here’s what the heated balls threw up:

Pool 1: Munster, Edinburgh, Saracens, Racing Metro 92

Pool 2: Toulouse, Leicester, Ospreys, Benetton Treviso

Pool 3: Biarritz, Harlequins, Connacht, Zebre

Pool 4: Northampton, Ulster, Glasgow Warriors, Castres

Pool 5: Leinster, Clermont Auvergne, Scarlets, Exeter

Pool 6: Cardiff Blues, Toulon, Sale, Montpellier

What’s the immediate reaction? Let’s start with the Irish perspective:

  • Ulster: got a dream draw after last season’s shocker. The home games should all be won, Castres are bunnies who won’t care (though better to visit them later in the schedule than earlier), and one other away win will guarantee a home QF
  • Connacht: will be happy. Biarritz aren’t what they used to be, Quins have already shown that they weren’t comfortable facing Connacht and Zebre didn’t exist last Friday. They will be targeting 3 wins here
  • Munster: are relieved. While that pool is tricky, it certainly could have been worse i.e. had Clermont in it. Embra and Racing Metro are beatable, albeit potentially difficult away from Thomond. Sarries at home is already a must-win game, and could be decided under the Owens-Poite paradigm
  • Leinster: will be disappointed. Aim number one was to avoid Clermont and they didn’t. Llanelli and Exeter need to be 4 wins for Leinster to qualify. Two teams could go through here, but neither with a home qf

And what else do we think:

  • Toulon will be happy – that pool sets them up for a real run at the HEC – they’ll be expecting at least a home quarter-final
  • Leicester got another stinker – for the 6th year in a row they’ll be in a three-way dogfight after 2012 (Clermont, Ulster), 2011 (Perpignan, Scarlets), 2010 (Clermont, Ospreys), 2009 (Perpignan, Ospreys) and 2008 (Toulouse, Leinster). For all Richard Cockerill’s moaning, they haven’t had it easy

On the away trips front, Leinster and Connacht got the best draws of the Irish sides – cycling and Clermont fans in Clermont-Ferrand and some surfing day-trips and beer in Exeter will go down very well in D4 thanks, and surfing and wine in the Basque country and a trip to Italia will suffice in Galway. Munster have some capital cities to go to (conspiracy!) – no three day boat trips and wading through moats of molten lava to get to the South of France this year, and Ulster will have the delights of … er …. chatting with locals in bars.

Embattlement

Normally unflappable Declan ‘sure, wouldn’t we prefer to play them four times’ Kidney is becoming embattled.  How do we know?  He’s coming out with a lot of silly stuff.

Test Rugby vs. Provincial Rugby

It’s becoming Deccie’s must-say piece in any interview to mention just what a collosal step up international rugby is from provincial rugby.  It was the first thing he said in his Sky pre-match interview on Saturday morning.  As Demented Mole highlighed in this excellent piece, he even described the Barbarians match as ‘an unforgiving environment’.  It’s pretty obvious why Deccie is so keen to pedal this line: at a time when the Irish side are struggling badly, Leinster are carving up Europe, and Ulster aren’t exactly chumps either.  Okay, Munster are having a tough time of it, but they can still contribute quality players to the national team.  Leinster playing such an attractive, exciting and winning brand of rugby makes Declan’s coaching look moribund by comparison.  The way he’s talking you’d swear Leinster’s success was detrimental to the Irish cause, and that provincial and test rugby were entirely different sports.  It doesn’t wash.

The New Caps

We had two debutants at tight-head, it is a pity that we have to be using the Irish team to give them experience. In fairness, they went out there and gave it their best shot and they will be better for it.

Deccie’s post match comments, which can be read in full here, stepped up the sense of a man on the defensive.  It’s a pretty thinly veiled dig at the provinces, in particular Ulster, for daring to play a non-Irish tighthead. 

Where to begin? With the fact that the IRFU have to endorse every signing that comes into the provinces?  Or by pointing out that Loughney racked up hours of gametime, including Heineken Cup starts with Connacht, while Fitzpatrick’s season was hampered by missing five months through injury?  Maybe by recalling that Kidney could have picked Loughney for the Ireland A game in February, but went with Munster reserve Stephen Archer instead?  How about by rewinding to Autumn 2010, when Mike Ross had established himself as the starting Leinster tighthead, but got zero minutes of gametime over four matches, while John Hayes was able to pad out his impressive caps total, despite being obviously no longer capable of playing at that level. 

Kidney has had plenty of chances to give a number of players on the fringes of the team test experience before now, but passed the opportunity up at every turn.  The sprightly Ian Madigan is at home kicking his heels.  To turn around and claim he’s the only one developing players is absurd.

The Provinces

For us to be really focused for this, would have cost in the season earlier on.  We would have had to have given up a number of other things. I don’t think the appetite is there for us to give up those other things to prepare for this tour in the way that you would have really, really needed to. That’s fine.

The digs at the provinces keep on coming.  He’s here all week, folks.  Those awful Leinster players, getting to the Heineken Cup final and having the gall to actually win the thing!  Couldn’t they have taken a three month sabbatical like the Welsh provinces?  This is really risible stuff.  It’s not like the Heineken Cup schedule sneaks up on you – he would have budgeted for exactly how long he’d have the team in camp from the start of the season.  Besides, the New Zealand players were playing Super 15 up to last week, and it was their first game since the World Cup final.  Exactly how long does he want the players in camp for anyway? 

The IRFU player welfare programme gives Kidney the sort of control over his players’ exposure that other national coaches can only dream of.  Kidney appears to be claiming that Heineken Cup success is no longer a positive thing, and would prefer to see the provinces take it easy between March and May.  This is a particularly strange state of affairs.

You have to admire the gusto with which Farrelly hoovers it all up.  At one point he even describes the Irish system as one ‘which favours provincial success over national development’, when in fact the entire club-province-country pyramid has been precision designed (and widely praised for it) to do exactly the opposite and put the national team as the top priority.

Kidney’s cutting an increasingly embattled, defensive figure, despite his army of media apologists continuing to search for reasons to explain it all away and pin the blame anywhere but on him (although Thornley is showing minor signs of disgruntlement).  It’s a most dispiriting state of affairs.

Land of the Long Pallid Faces

We must admit that was one of the more enjoyable of the long list of Ireland defeats of the last 3 years. Ireland actually played reasonably well in patches, and they had a fresh feel; most of all, New Zealand are a joy to watch – despite being outplayed in the World Cup final, they are easily the best team in the world, and they show you just how far away from that level Ireland, and Irish rugby, truly is. The remainder of the series is likely to further illustrate the point, but this series has the potential to kick-start the Irish team again, assuming we have the ability to take something away from it.

Here are some specific talking points:

All Blacks Bloody New Zealand: Matty is right – to beat them, humanise them, don’t put them on a pedestal. But that’s only the starting point. As he said after Saturday’s game, Ireland’s selection, intensity, tactics, precision and performance were at unacceptable levels to compete with BNZ.

While it was great to see selection on form (in most positions), there remain some questions. The lack of a bigger picture strategy means that you don’t sense the Ireland squad know where they are going – are the newbies going to be ditched after a few games (see: 2010 tour), or will they play every minute thereafter (Rosser and SOB 2010-11)? Picking players out of position, like Ferg on the wing, might work in the Six Nations, but it will be exposed at this altitude – it doesn’t benefit anyone. Intensity was ok, but tactics and execution (precision) weren’t – Ireland appeared set up to play expansive football, but picked a scrum half who box kicked too much – what’s the point? On performance, this was probably a 7.5/10 effort from Ireland, and they lost by 32 points. That is a fair reflection of the 8th best team playing the best. If we pulled out a South Africa 2009 performance (our best under Deccie), we would probably still have lost by 15. We’re not at their level, but we won’t come close without clarity of purpose.

Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis ™: is not a crisis at all. Well, it should probably be described as a crisis of opportunity, not existence. Declan Fitzpatrick stepped into Mike Ross’s size 20s and produced a pretty creditable performance – the scrum was locked tight and he even put in a few tackles. Fitzpatrick has the classic shape for a tighthead – slim shoulders, barrel chest and athletic hips – and he finally realised some of his potential on Saturday.

Even if Ross if fit for the second test, it might be worth throwing Fitzpatrick back in, provided his hamstrings are 100% – it’s a position where we need depth, and he offers enough relative to Ross to not lose too much. Getting back to opportunity, if Ireland really want to develop more tightheads and give opportunities to the likes of Fitzpatrick in the future, perhaps the IRFU should think about implementing a rule to restrict foreign imports in key positions? What? Oh.

Key Pack Leaders: In the absence of Fez and Paul O’Connell, it was imperative that some of the other forwards stepped up and assumed leadership roles. And Donnacha Ryan did exactly that – he had a good aggressive game and was at least the second best lock on the field. Its amazing to think that Ryan is now a key man in the team, yet this was the very first test where he was indisputably one of the first choice locks (he deputised for an injured O’Connell in the 6N) – let’s hope we bring similarly talented players through quicker in the future – Ryan is nearly 29, and realistically only has one full RWC cycle in him.

Jamie Heaslip at 8 was among Ireland’s best players – he didn’t look out of his depth facing Kieran Read and adapted his game well to cover some of the weaknesses of those around him, but is still not at his best in attack.  Best, O’Brien and Healy also fought gamely.

Golden Dawn: It was a mixed day for those swept in by the new broom – Deccie Fitz did well and Keith Earls’ performance alongside BOD had plenty of positives – but now he’s out of the tour. In the debit column, Simon Zebo had a difficult day despite showing some spark in the first half. His role in Savea’s 3rd try looks worse with every viewing (Kearney’s contribution wasn’t much better), and his one handed-carrying style is predictable. Still, he survived, just about – in spite of our reservations, there is no point in dropping him now, let’s see what he learned next day out.

Dan Tuohy had a difficult day at the office – the step up was stark and he struggled for air. Again, he has bags of potential, let’s keep him in there, his career path has been upward sloping for the last 4 years, there is little benefit to be gained by turning back to Stakhanov.

Peter O’Mahony was shown up by Adam Thompson for his try – his weak left shoulder has long been highlighted, and unless he fixes it, he is not going to be international class, no matter how much Farrelly, Hook and their chums in the meeja want him to be.  He has much to commend him as a player, but test blindsides need to be men of granite who will take no backward step – think of Stephen Ferris or Dan Lydiate – and simply cannot have such an obvious tackling weakness. 

Darren Cave had a distastrous first taste of top class international rugby, ushering Smuddy in for the final try and any other referee would have binned him for the pull on Ben Smith. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, we hope this isn’t it for him – he was trying too hard, and a more relaxed Cave (coming on for Earls, he looked like he had seen a ghost) the next day has to be better.

Ward/Campbell Elwood/Humphreys O’Gara/Humphreys Sexton/O’Gara: What is it about the Irish and tiresome stand-offs for the out-half shirt? Well, for all intents and purposes, the current one is over – Sexton has started 6 games in a row, and is coming off a season as the stand-out 10 in Europe. His rival, the great Ronan O’Gara, is 35 and is coming off his worst season to date –  for the first time, people in Munster are questioning his value to the side.

So why is he coming in with 25 minutes to go when Sexton had been doing ok? Why not bring in Eoin Reddan and let the Leinster halves unleash what they have been doing in Europe? We take nothing ROG has done for Ireland for granted, but he was never going to be able to make an impact in this sort of game.  We really hope its not the coach appeasing the bellicose Rog, and thinking it’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. In O’Gara’s autobiography, he said himself how he never could fully settle and give 100% to Ireland while Eddie was hauling him off on the hour mark – Deccie should listen to him.