Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Eight

The Match: Ireland 21 South Africa 23, 6 November 2010

What it Defined: Ireland’s inability to build on the 2009 Grand Slam

The State of Play

Following Ireland’s miracle 2009 – Grand Slam in the locker, plethora of Lions selections, out-muscling of the Springboks, zero defeats – it was inevitable that they wouldn’t maintain that standard.

In the following year’s Six Nations, Ireland’s efforts were considered a failure by the standards they had set for themselves over previous years. In a season when you visit Paris and London, three wins is par, but when one of your defeats is at home to a previously-winless Scotland in a game you were playing to win the Triple Crown, it puts a different spin on things.

There were three notable take-aways from the championship, and the most important was last – in that Scotland game we saw the first glimpse of Ireland throwing the ball laterally across the line for little gain. Going wide at every opportunity now seemed to be in vogue, but Ireland appeared to have little idea of what to do with the ball. In the Scotland game, the Jocks couldn’t believe their luck, and dominated the breakdown. Previous to this, there were commendable efforts to expand the gameplan, and Ireland had no problem scoring tries – 11 in total, and 3 each for Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. However, most of the scores were off first phase set-piece ball, and you got the impression these moves would eventually be found out.

Secondly, the back and forth switching between Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton started. ROG started the first two games, then Sexton the next three (after Sexton finished the November internationals as incumbent). This, amazingly, continued for the two years up to and including the World Cup – the lack of clarity in a key position seemed indicative of a drift in purpose.

Thirdly, Ireland’s rock solid discipline from 2009 (apart from the Wales game) was showing signs of breaking down. In Paris, Ireland had somehow withstood a furious start from the French to still be in the game when Jerry Flannery aimed a reckless fly-hack at Alexis Pallison – he somehow avoided a red card, but Ireland conceded two tries with him in the bin, where he joined Cian Healy who had already seen yellow for a shameless and lazy tug on Morgan Parra.

In their home games against Wales and Scotland, Ireland repeatedly gave away penalties. It took until very late to put Wales away as Stephen Jones hoovered up three-point opportunities, then, in the Scotland game, Dan Parks punished repeated offending to kick Scotland to victory – the mindless boos surrounding his winning kick encapsulated a frustrating campaign.

That June, Ireland went to the Southern Hemisphere to play New Zealand, NZ Maori and Oz. They lost all three games, but it wasn’t a tour wasted. A horrendous sequence of injuries meant a raft of young and up-and-coming players got gametime – and most did well for themselves – even Ed O’Donoghue.  Okay, maybe not Ed O’Donoghue, but the point stands.

In the New Zealand test, Ireland were reduced to 14 men after 10 minutes and were 31 points down at half-time. Yet, in a contrast to this years Hamilton test, they rallied and ended up scoring 4 tries; only the second time NZ have conceded 4 in their last 50 games (the other being the Bledisloe Cup game in HK last summer). Then Australia had great difficulty in shaking off the tourists in the final game, winning by 7 after trailing for much of the frst half.

Ireland may have gone 0-3, but it looked like they had engineered a good position to build upon after a difficult, but ultimately fruitful, tour.  They also looked to be finding their feet with regard to the ‘new game’.  Kidney and Kiss talked about rugby being a ‘game of keep-ball’ and of defending the ‘two-second ruck’.

Next year, Leinster started the season like Thomas the Tank Engine with three defeats from four (the time Joe Schmidt lost the dressing room according to G. Hook), but were building up to Stephenson’s Rocket by the time the November series rolled up – they had started the HEC in seriously formidable fashion, and Tullow man Sean O’Brien and the finally fit Mike Ross had been hugely impressive. The series would be Ireland’s first in the spanking new Palindrome, but the Old Farts had disastrously misread the rugby public – obscenely expensive packaged tickets put off many punters, and the opening game, against a Springbok side itching for revenge following a series of defeats to Ireland, was far from a sell-out.

The Irish media, meanwhile, were delighted with themselves – there was nary a dissenting voice – Ireland would comfortably dispatch an injury-hit South Africa and be all set for NZ 2 weeks later. Matty Williams has identified this as the point when Irish rugby got into the comfort zone – confidence turned to arrogance, and the need to constantly grow was left behind. At the time, this half of WoC (Egg) felt like Scrooge for doggedly insisting this South Africa team weren’t going to roll over and have their tummies tickled, but was in a small minority.

The Game

The alarm bells began to ring even louder when the Ireland selection was revealed – the message was clear – out with the new and in with the old. The tightheads were Mushy and Tom Court, tyro second rows Dan Tuohy and Devin Toner were ignored for O’Callaghan and Micko, and a woefully out-of-form Denis Leamy got picked on the bench ahead of O’Brien – Deccie was going with what he knew.

The tourists may have been missing the likes of Francois Steyn, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussouw, JP Pietersen and Fourie du Preez, but they came out strong and hungry – the Irish barely saw the ball for the first quarter, and when they did, were guilty of simple errors. One such was Eoin Reddan’s telegraphed pass off a line-out, which was snaffled up by the wily-but-not-exactly-Usain-Bolt Juan Smith for an intercept try from halfway.

Fly half Jonny Sexton’s radar wasn’t functioning for Ireland, in stark contrast to the metronomic Morne, and by the time Gio Aplon finished in the corner with 15 to go, Ireland were 23-9 down and looking well-beaten. To their credit, they took advantage of the Springboks taking their foot off the pedal, and substitute Radge inspired two late tries, and almost nailed the difficult conversion for the draw. However, it was too little too late, and a disappointing performance.

The teams:

Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, B. O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Best, Buckley; O’Callaghan, M. O’Driscoll, Ferris, Wallace, Heaslip

South Africa: Aplon; Basson, Kirchner, de Villiers, Habana; M. Steyn, Pienaar; Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, J. du Plessis; Botha, Matfield; Stegmann, Smith, Spies

The Aftermath

The game saw Ireland descend into the cycle of inconsistency, indecision and unclear gameplans which culminated in the Hamilton disaster.

The following week, back in the Aviva (someone had to pay for it!), Ireland struggled past Samoa – Sean O’Brien and Devin Toner, calling the lineouts on his debut, came into the side, but Ross sat it out again – John Hayes resuming familiar duty on the tighthead side. New Zealand completed a routine 20 point victory the next week, then Ireland had one of those nasty and mean-spirited Pumas games to round off the series – they won, but it’s difficult to look good when your opponents only want to fight. The series had left Ireland looking tired and devoid of inspiration, with the management seemingly hunkering down with the team as it was for the World Cup.

The 2011 Six Nations campaign started with a flirt with ignominy – Ireland deserved to lose in Rome, but were rescued by Mirco Bargamasco’s unreliable boot and some late poise from ROG. They lose at home to France, beat Scotland in a drudge-fest, then lost to Wales in one of the most mindless performances from Ireland in recent years – the ball was kicked away over 50 times, and they looked entirely devoid of attacking ideas. They conceded a try from a shocking piece of umpiring, but, to be truthful, they didn’t deserve to win. All of which left them needing to win at home to England to even get close to par for the tournament.

This was their best performance since the Springbok win in 2009 – full of poise, aggression and attacking intent. It looked like they had finally turned a corner and were moving forward again The early Mike Ross (now one of Deccie’s untouchables following Mushy’s inability to make it through 80 minutes in a Wolfhounds game) scrum followed by Sexton and Earls attack felt like a keystone moment. Allied to the form of Leinster in Europe, it seemed Ireland were going to approach the World Cup with a confident, heads-up approach.

It was better late than never, but it was hard not to be rueful of a missed opportunity.  Ireland had left it until the last game of the series to get their best team on the pitch and by now frustration with Declan Kidney’s selection policy was in full swing.  The way Ross and O’Brien went from being persona non grata in the Autumn to 80-minute key players spoke of a lack of joined-up thinking on behalf of the management.  It was not as if they had not been on the radar in the Autumn – indeed, there was a loud clamour for both of them to be given proper exposure to test rugby, but it dadn’t happen.  How could they have missed something so obvious – that Ross was vastly superior to Buckley, Court and Hayes in the key position of tighthead prop?

The World Cup turned out to be more of the same, confirming Ireland’s as a team which flatters to deceive, swinging from the sublime to the ridiculous in every series of games. From almost losing to Italy to spanking England in that tournament, in the World Cup warm-ups it was a desperate defeat to Scotland (admittedly with a scratch side) followed by nearly winning in Bordeaux.

In the tournament itself, Ireland failed to get a bonus point from the USA, then followed that up with a purposeful and aggressive destruction of Australia, Tri-Nations champions and one of the pre-tournament favourites, in Auckland. Ireland were blessed by good fortune with the conditions and injuries to the Australian pack, but it was a tactical masterclass.  That was followed by yet more chopping and changing at out-half, and a smooth and smart win over Italy. Confidence was high going into the quarter-final against Wales, but Ireland flopped. O’Gara was in, and he had one of his worst days in green. Wales were wise to the ball-carrying of Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris and chopped them by the legs on the gain-line, and Ireland sank without trace in the second half.

A curate’s egg, then, no doubt about it – which was the real Ireland? The one who ruthlessly destroyed the Wallaby forwards, or the one swatted aside by (an admittedly top class) Wales? The sense of an opportunity of a lifetime passed up was (and is) strong – Wales went on to lose to an uninspired France side, who then put the heart across New Zealand, whose reponse to pressure was typically frenzied, albeit that they scraped over the line this time.

Perhaps the answers would come in 2012 – the coaching team got a re-jig, with a new three-pronged attack coach (mostly Les Kiss) replacing Gaffney, a new manager and Axel pinched from Munster for the injured Gert Smal. The attack functioned well enough after an inauspicious start, but Mick Kearney managed to alienate officialdom by implying they had no confidence in Wayne Barnes following his binning of Fez in the first game. Axel promised a fresh approach akin to that he had been working on in Munster, but lapsed into moaning about refs (a tiresome and increasingly desperate ploy from the Irish management) almost immediately.

Following a HEC campaign which saw three Irish provinces make the knock-out stages for the first time, confidence was high for the Six Nations. But the same problems remained – almost beating France in the re-fixed Stade game was merely a portend for a craven capitulation in Twickers where the lack of depth at tighthead was cruelly exposed by the English. By now every Kidney team selection was being greeted with howls of derision.  It appeared the coach was ploughing on regardless – of the 19 players selected, all 4 changes were injury-enforced, with no tactical or rotational changes at all. Donncha O’Callaghan, who had fallen to 4th in the Munster lock pecking order, started every game. It was indicative of the lack of direction of the team and an increasingly embattled management team digging their heels further and further into the ground.

No-one will forget what happened after that – two Irish provinces made it to the HEC final, yet the national team performance graph was more volatile than ever, swinging from almost beating New Zealand in the Second Test with a display of calculated power and poise, to losing 60-0 a week later. Meanwhle, the coach cut a desolate figure, resorting to taking pot shots at Ulster over the lack of experience of the reserve tighthead, and hunkering down for his last year.

This is where Ireland are at now – a player group low on confidence, without a discernable medium-term plan and seemingly unimpressed with the coaching ticket. Yet it’s a player group high on skill, high on intelligence and heavy with medals.  Scratching for 8th place in the world is not reflective of its ability.  It’s a similar place to where they were when Deccie took over.

How can Ireland put the type of long-term structures in place to maximise achievement on the international stage? How can they move on from the boom-bust cycle, briefly punctured in 2007 and 2009, that has characterised the team since 2000? How can the governing authorities modernise the sport at national level, where the inaccessiblity and eye-scratching dross of the national team contrast sharply to the provinces, motivated as they are by the ruthlessly commercial and Darwinian HEC scene?

If this sounds like a lament for a lost lover, it should – after Ireland reached their pinnacle in 2009, they have generally flattered to deceive and are a teasing frustration for the fans.  Someone needs to put a bit of sparkle into the national team.

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9 Comments

  1. Dave

     /  August 10, 2012

    This might sound completely mad as I haven’t ran it by anybody yet but here goes. What do Deccie, Les, Gert and Tainton do when there are no Internationals on? It’s not terribly often you see any of them out at the provinces giving insight into a “national game plan” Christ there’s an idea! I know and realise that the relationship between the provinces and the national set-up is fraught but f**k it, lets get some sort of “robust” communication going, any is better than none! It may be time to go to Enfield again and have another infamous meeting?
    Maybe we should look at a national style of play that the provinces can feed into. National style is a bit funny though. France have always been seen as the champagne rugby brigade mixed with terrible s**te from time to time. England always have a big pack and will be difficult to beat, same goes for the Bokke and Pumas. Wales are perhaps the one team that have evolved according to the players at their disposal. They would have been seen as a “flingy about” type but Gatland has brought in Davies, Cuthbert and North along with a terrific backrow. They have changed their game plan to suit their circumstances from the “flingy about” type to the “run over the top of you offloading giants” type.
    Is this beyond the realms of possibility for Ireland? Uncle Joe immediately spotted that he had the players to play a certain style of game, and fair play to him he has Leinster playing it, playing it very well! On the other hand Tony McGahan had a style of game in his head, but not the players to do it and said, f**k it, I’m gonna do it anyway. And there’s the rub….

    • rorymccarthy@mac.com

       /  August 10, 2012

      Sorry but I think that is a very ignorant comment Dave. Kiss, Smal and Tainton all assist and coaching of the provinces and provide clinics to various rugby clubs. Kiss is known for giving various clubs ‘technical sessions’ where he gives a coaching clinic in defence to a team. He has done this with the provincial teams and the AIL teams such as Old Belvedere, Clontarf, Dublin University plus not to mention alot of the small junior league clubs where the IRFU encourages (or is supposed to encourage) development of the game. Smal is the same and Tainton has done kicking clinics with the provincial teams.
      The comments about the national teams were ridiculously stereotypical (‘England have a big pack and will be hard to beat’, I have plenty of English teams outmuscled and hockeyed off the park).
      The comment of Munster is exceedingly dismissive and harsh. Munster’s players aren’t capable of playing the game the way McGahan wanted? I’m sorry maybe you haven’t noticed, but Munster are supposed to be ‘in crisis’ or ‘in transition’ depending on your viewpoint. Well given they won the Magners League last year, and reached the semi’s this year, won the British & Irish Cup this year beating Leinster in a semi-final they were written off for and given they won 6 games on the trot in Europe, I would say Munster are capable of playing with McGahan’s style and handling the crisis quite well given that record.

      • @Rory I think the issue regarding McGahan’s gameplan was not so much that the Munster players weren’t capable of playing it, but that when the pressure came on, they tended to revert to the style with which they were most comfortable, so it ended up looking like a whole lot of nothing. Against Ulster, for example, they just sent the first man out from the ruck crashing into the tackle time after time, and Ulster were able to hold out without really playing any rugby. I think everyone expects and hopes Rob Penney will be able to bring his vision to bear on the team better than McGahan could.

        McGahan posted some decent results, and winning the Magners League twice is not an achievement to be sniffed at, but I think some of the results you’re citing papered over the cracks of performance decline. The extent of the rebuilding job required was laid bare by the 45-10 defeat to Ospreys. Anyhow, surely it’s time to forget about McGahan and look forward to a new era in Munster?

  2. Anonymous

     /  August 10, 2012

    Great series and a real low point to finish. Have to agree with @Dave on the lack of a national style, game plan or what ever you want to call it. I think management have a tendency to pick what they perceive to be the best player in each position and then force a game plan on them as apposed to starting with the plan and picking the team to suit it.

    One question that remains is what’s the solution or maybe who?

  3. Dave

     /  August 12, 2012

    @Rory, I’m sorry you feel that way Rory. I realise the international reference is steroetyped but I was using it to highlight Wales’ ability to change their perceived national style to something that suits their current set of players.

    On the Munster point (I am a Munater fan) I feel that Tony tried admirably to implement a game plan that did not suit the players at his disposal. Winning all of the pool matches and the other games you have cited counted for little against the Ospreys in the Rabo. The wide-wide game he persisted with would not work, as WhiffofCordite has pointed out, because players reverted to type when the heat came on, no more so than in the HCup 1/4 against Ulster. Please do not misunderstand me, I think Munster have a great squad but it is being misutilised. That day against Ulster our ruck ball was incredibly slow and Tommy O’Donnell was outplayed by Chris Henry who had his best ever performance. In order to implement the wide – wide game plan in that scenario we required a bull of a centre or David Wallace to break the gainline and then go wide, instead we went over and back accross the Ulster line and often backwards becasue Mafi (great player by the way) 1. didnt have the strength to break the tackles and 2. mostly cut back inside to traffic.

    As far as the coaches are concerned, I am not ignorant to the fact that they hold technical sessions with some teams. I am calling for a more open platform between the National, Provincial and Club set-ups, whereby it is clear to all involved what the focus of the national team is. It is obvious that we have a shortage of Tight-head props, Inside Centres and Outhalves so in my opinion the national coaching ticket have a role to play in “marketing” these positions at schools right up to provincial level. It would cause ructions in some quarters but how about Kidney asking Ulster to play Paul Marshall wit Peinaar at outhalf a bit, or rest John Afoa and play Fitzpatrick. Same at Munster rest ROG and play Keatley or Hanarahan. At Leinster give D’Arcy a break and try O’Malley or McFadden even Macken.

    • SteveO

       /  August 12, 2012

      Dave, I like the idea of the Provinces working more closely with the national team in terms of getting more game time for Irish players like Fitzpatrick etc. That mightn’t initially seem appealing to provincial coaches who are keen on any more interference from above and whose jobs rely on their own results rather than those of the national team, but it appeals to me more than the NIQ limits which are to be imposed on the provinces next year, and I think in the end the provincial coaches might agree.

      On the other hand I’m not a fan of a national game-plan being developed by the international coaches and adopted by the provinces, mainly because I find the idea of Joe Schmidt having to adopt Declan Kidney’s ideas pretty horrifying!

  4. Dave

     /  August 13, 2012

    @SteveO Ya I have to agree with you Steve, Kidney on current form, developing game plans is “horrifying”! However, I was implying when I said “open platform” that the relationship would not be solely top-down, rather a multidimensional one, input from Clubs, Provinces and the National set-up. If we are to emulate the success of Wales for instance we need to place an emphasis on developing the national team from every quarter.

    If I were to have a go at a game plan for Ireland it would be something along the lines of the Leinster one. They have proven it works well in the current form of the game, just as the Munster gameplan under Kidney worked well at that time. We have the players to do it. However we need to pick them. Taking off my red tinted glasses for a moment, it would be more suitable to play Reddan rather than Murray with Sexton if that was the game plan required. Murray may be a better all rounder but the game plan suits Reddan. Uncle Joe changes between Boss and Reddan depending on game plan also.

    The Mole wrote an interesting article on the benefits of picking the best players for the job recently. It was aimed at Steve Hansen on his selection of Liam Messam. It would be akin to picking John Muldoon for the recent tour.

    • I’m not convinced on Muddy Wulliams’s ‘National Game Plan’ concept. It’s great in theory, but I’m not sure we’ve the depth of talent for it. Provincial coaches have to cut their cloth according to what’s available, so I don’t think we can just foist a certain style of play on them. We’ll be wrapping up the series tomorrow with a look at where we are and how best to move forward.

  5. A curate’s egg of a team indeed. Lets hope someone soon finds the right recipe for a consistent omlette.

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