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.

Movin’ On Up

You don’t experiment against New Zealand

Or maybe you do.  Kidney has picked a team with a new front row, new second row, pretty new back row, new centre partnership and new wings.  After the moans and groans that greeted every Six Nations selection, this team is like a breath of fresh air.   There’s a chink of sunlight shining through the grey torpor that is the Irish rugby team.  Could this be a team that’s fun to watch and support again?  Dare we dream? 

It’s a selection that indicates Kidney has thrown off the shackles a bit and looked beyond his group of stalwarts, the lads he ‘knows what they can do’.  The two biggest undererformers from the Six Nations, D’arcy and O’Callaghan, have been jettisoned – cue sighs of relief from Limerick to Belfast via Dublin. 

Into the second row comes Dan Tuohy, who’s been knocking hard for inclusion the whole season, and indeed since the last tour to New Zealand, where he looked international material. It may be 2 years delayed, but he’s going to get a run in the team now by the looks of things.  He forms a granite-hard partnership with the increasingly influential Ryan.  It ticks a lot of boxes, so long as they can manage the lineout between them, where neither is predominantly a middle-jumper – although Tuohy has some experience there this year when paired with Lewis Stevenson.

The centre partnership excites.  The numbers on the shirts are 12 Earls and 13 BOD but don’t expect them to necessarily play that way.  They’ll probably mix and match, but we’d expect that BOD is there to deal with the defensive threat of Sunny Bull and will play in the inside channel more often.  It defies logic to have Earls’ pace and running stuck in heavy traffic. Conrad Smith is a wily operator – Earls will have his hands full, but he has the football for it.

It’s a curiousity that there are 4 players in the 22 who would tell you their preferred position is outside centre – BOD, Earls, Cave and McFadden. It speaks for the versatility of this generation of backs that they can be accomodated without the squad looking lop-sided.

The wingers are a curious pair.  With Bowe and Luke injured, and Trimble’s form tapering towards the end of the season (fatigue?), it’s all change.  On the right we’ve Fergus McFadden, fresh from strong performances out wide in two finals in the last month, but something of a heads-down contact magnet and hardly a try-machine. 

Simon Zebo will split the jury on the left.  His pace and finishing are top drawer, but he is defensively suspect, both positionally and in the tackle.  Many would prefer Craig Gilroy or even Dave Kearney.  But at the very least, it’s a ballsy call that has attack, rather than defensive solidity in mind.  You feel that if they wanted McFadden on one wing, they need to balance it up with an out and out finisher on the other. It’s a seat of the pants selection, but hey, we’ve moaned about Deccie’s conservatism for a long time, so let’s see how it plays out.

In the tight, Ross’ injury leaves the coaching team with little choice but to turn to Ulster reserve Declan Fitzpatrick.  He’s in the Ross mould in that he can scrummage well, but will offer little around the park – and Amen to that.  The set piece is king.  His performances against Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup semi-final and Leinster in the Pro12 have catapulted him to the top of an admittedly short queue. Still, it’s John Afoa’s reserve in one team, and the man John Afoa couldn’t shift in the other – eek.

We have a bone of contention at scrum-half, where Reddan is once again the easiest man in the country to drop – he could be closing in on Mick Galwey and Mike Catt’s record by the time he hangs up his ickle boots.  Conor Murray has had an indifferent season, and if Ireland are to make the most of a backline that teems with strike runners, he must deliver quick, accurate service and get Sexton moving onto the ball in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed when watching Leinster. Maybe with proper carriers in front of him, Murray will concentrate on getting the ball out – he should watch videos of last year’s Pro12 final all week!

If we’re to quibble, it’s at the lack of an overarching philosophy of selection, a grand vision.  Kidney has gone from being totally resistant to change to suddenly throwing debutants in at the deep end.  There are shades of the 2009 Autumn series / 2010 Six Nations when Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien went from being completely ignored to playing 80 minutes of every game.  We seem to lurch from one series to the next.  Dan Tuohy couldn’t even make the training squad in the Six Nations, in spite of his form being every bit as impressive then as now.  Wouldn’t it be easier for him to be starting his first game with a little Six Nations experience under his belt?

But as the saying goes, we are where we are, and we can only move forward from here.  Kidney has shown that he can drop his favourites, he can pick on form, and he can pick a team that excites, on paper anyway.  Now the trick is transferring that to the pitch, with only the world champions in their way.  We would hope that the new faces are afforded some slack if when the Kiwis win at a canter.