As we build up to the penultimate game of this year’s RBS 6 Nations, now is a good time to reflect on what we have learned from watching Ireland so far, and looking towards the Rugby World Cup, where they need to improve.
Time is ticking for Ireland; the first game in New Zealand against the USA is only 6 months away. Between now and that game Ireland have two 6 Nations games and four friendly games to play: that’s only 8 hours of game time!
The new style that Ireland have been playing since the Autumn has yet to fully bed in with the players, and although there has been a marked improvement of the last three games, it still has a way to go to match the fluidity of the Southern Hemisphere teams.
The biggest issue with the current team in this 6 Nations has been lack of discipline, however, this is the one issue that players can turn around quickly. Ireland have been conceding penalties inside their own half repeatedly in the last three games offering opponents cheap points. Part of the blame has to lie with the coaching staff for this. Even though the video analysts profiled each referee and their interpretation of the breakdown, the Irish players have gone out in the last three games as if they were unprepared and surprised to get penalised.
The lack of creativity in midfield is beginning to bite. While Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy’s defensive play is second-to-none in world rugby, this season they have produced little imagination in attack. They have been relying heavily on the backrow to make line breaks and create some space. Sean O’Brien has excelled at this and saved some of their blushes, but we need to start looking at alternatives in the center, particularly at 12. I believe giving Fergus McFadden a chance at inside center would be a positive move for Ireland, and the risk is minimal as he has experience of playing alongside O’Driscoll at Leinster.
The lineout has also struggled considerably this season, and there are a number of influencing factors that have caused this. John Hayes’ absence here has been noted, who is widely regarded as one of the best lifters in the game. Jerry Flannery’s awful run of injuries has also contributed to problems, and his fast, flat and accurate throwing ability is sorely missed. I was surprised that since Ireland had opted to go with the more territorial game against Scotland that Devin Toner wasn’t drafted in to partner O’Connell so we could compete at the lineout more effectively. Replacement hooker Sean Cronin has come on as a sub, but he seems to be slow to get up to match speed. It might be a worthwhile experiment to let him start a match to see if he settles better after the first 15 minutes.
The coaching staff have come in for some pretty cutting criticism over the last few months, from their choice of game plan, to team selection, to use of the substitutes bench. The new game plan of Ireland’s – to play running rugby rather than the territorial kicking game – first emerged during the Autumn internationals last year. This was the game plan that was chosen to bring Ireland to at least the semi-finals of the World Cup in September. Some say this should have been introduced earlier last year, but the same detractors would have been calling for Kidney’s head had he introduced this system for the 6-Nations last season and not finished in 2nd position. There seems to be an incredible amount of pressure not only from the fans and media, but from the top-down for the management to produce results at the cost of the bigger picture. Irish rugby fans need to step back and bear in mind that the World Cup is the end goal, Ireland will need more than one game plan to progress through the tournament and I think we are only a whisker away from achieving Kidney’s goals in this respect.
Use of the bench has also been highlighted and it seemed against Scotland that Kidney bowed to media pressure emptying the bench on the hour, which caused a certain amount of disjointed play and Scotland were back in the game before we knew it. Again this is something that can be chalked down to experience and remedied.
The Churchill Cup is being played in England in June and I think that Ireland have missed a huge opportunity by not being involved. Ireland play in the Churchill Cup on an invitational basis, but they turned down the invitation last season due to the Southern Hemisphere tour in June, and this year Italy and Tonga have been invited to play for the first time. This competition would have been a great shop window for the fringe players on the Irish squad; a chance for the younger players to step up and compete for a World Cup place.
In the Summer of 2007 Eddie O’Sullivan took a touring party to Argentina in June and played one test against the Argentinians (lost), followed by only two friendly games in August against Scotland (lost) and Italy (won). Ireland went on to a disastrous World Cup campaign looking rusty and frustrated. This year, the preparation looks to be at a considerably higher level – facing stiff tests against Scotland, France (away), France (home) and England will surely provide a real challenge for the Irish leading into the World Cup.
Overall I think we are on the right track. Some patience is required from the public with the team and coaches, and with a couple of small tweaks I believe we will be challenging for the Semi-Finals in October.
Fixtures Remaining before the Rugby World Cup:
12th Mar v Wales Cardiff
19th Mar v England Dublin
6th Aug v Scotland Dublin
13th Aug v France Bordeaux
20th Aug v France Dublin
27th Aug v England Dublin