The Irish Quandary: Six Nations Review

Declan KidneyIreland’s 24-8 victory over England, and the subsequent derailment of the England Grand Slam party, had many pundits searching for the tip-ex for their pre-written Sunday morning columns on England’s glorious Grand Slam. However, was this a surprise, and, if not, are Ireland now worth the hype with some pundits calling the Irish performance the game of the 6 nations – one pundit has even gone as far as saying that Ireland should be proclaimed the team of the tournament?

Ireland have flattered to deceive this year, but for the Irish amongst us, this 6 nations will be another one of those that ‘could have been…’ Jerry Guscott tweeted that if they’d had Heaslip and Bowe for the duration they would have another grand slam in the trophy cabinet. Ireland are a very good team, bursting with talent, and with a game plan that is up there with the best in the world, but, for the first few games this was not apparent.

The last gasp victory over Rome had many Irish pundits waxing lyrical about the decline of the Irish squad in the run up to the world cup, with many predicting similar results to that of RWC 2007. However, let’s step back. Italy at home is a daunting prospect for any team. They ran Australia close in the Autumn. They had a half against NZ where they were boxing fresh, and they’ve beaten the Argentineans in the Stadio Flaminio. Surely any seasoned pundit knows that an away fixture in Rome is up there in terms of difficulty with the most intimidating venues. Ireland got a ‘get-out-of-jail-card’, and probably didn’t deserve to win the game, but the result, or near-loss shouldn’t have led to a character assassination on the team – something that the French later got from their own coach (!) after succumbing to the Italians for the first time in the Championship.

Next up were the French at home. Ireland were unlucky. They had chances to seal the game, but with players in the team that were out of form (O’Leary), just back from injury (Heaslip) or second choice (Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald), the Irish were never going to be at the top of their game. Granted, O’Leary, Heaslip and McFadden all scored tries in the newly refurbished Landsdowne Road. However, the key issue for this performance was discipline – the men in green were their own worst enemy, allowing Parra and then Yachvili to constantly kick the points that eventually proved their undoing. They outscored the French 3-1 in tries, but conceded way more penalties in kickable areas. Yet again the naysayers went into overdrive, but, wasn’t this just an early sign of a team trying to perfect a new game plan?

The third match saw them pit their wits against the Scots at Murrayfield. A team buoyed by the return of Tommy Bowe, won a hard fought victory despite a late surge by the Scots. Why was there a late surge though? The finger was pointed at Declan Kidney’s poor use of subs – which I believe is fully warranted – but, again, the infringements were high from the men in green. Ireland gifted Scotland 15 out of their 18 points – a stat that, put simply, only serves to make things harder at international level.

Next up were the Welsh at the Millennium Stadium. Ireland were abysmal – I have few shining lights from this game, apart from the fact that I missed out last minute on paying £70 on a ticket. Their tactical kicking was very poor – perhaps the main reason for O’Gara being dropped for the final game of the championship. Reddan lasted less than one minute before getting knocked out. Fitzgerald was exposed time and time again – leading to his warranted exclusion from the squad against England.

Fitzgerald has stated that he wants to play fullback, but on that performance, he won’t be playing in the 15 shirt for his country for a long time. This game highlighted the huge importance of getting Rob Kearney back and firing on his Lions tour form. Then there was ‘that’ try. Inches and inches have been written about how unlawful the decision to award the try was. The fact of the matter is that Ireland probably didn’t deserve to win the game. Wales were better. However, discipline had improved, and the poor performances were clearly not indicative of a team that needs to be sent to Coventry.

Redemption awaited in Dublin against the new swagger of the young England revolution in search of the grand slam and desperate to build momentum. Changes were made in the Ireland squad and the team were given a proverbial slap around the face. It was basically now or never. I’m not going to go into the minutiae of the performance, anyone reading this will know that Ireland completely dominated England. The point of this article is that the performance from the Irish finally clicked – and the joy from the supporters in Green was, in part, down to this. The forwards kept the penalty count low. The scrum was solid (until Mike Ross came off). The lineout functioned well (though, Jerry Flannery’s return will be eagerly awaited by Kidney). The backline was incisive in attack and dogged in defence. And, yet again, they scored tries.

Ireland certainly were not the team of the tournament. They finished third on points difference. I also don’t think they deserve the ‘performance of the championship’ award – that, in my opinion should go to the Italian team that beat the French in Rome. They shouldn’t be installed as RWC 2011 favourites up alongside New Zealand, because it takes a huge step up to beat the Southern Hemisphere teams down under. However, they should be lauded as a force to be reckoned with…if they don’t lose any pieces of the jigsaw before New Zealand that is, as they won’t get 5 games to piece it back together again.

By John White

5 thoughts on “The Irish Quandary: Six Nations Review

  1. A fair review. Ireland looked like they were on the edge of a precipice going into the last game, but found some redemption and now, remarkably, have possibly more momentum than England going into the World Cup.

    However, as I see it, management made two glaring errors which we cannot afford to make in the RWC,

    1. Too many players asked to find their form in the tournament. You can get away with this with a couple of players, a Paul O’Connell or a Brian O’Driscoll. But Kidney tried to get too many of his reliables on the pitch depite the fact that they were struggling for form or just back from injury. It worked out for POC and DOC, while Heaslip and Bowe got there eventually, but it was a costly failure with O’Leary and Fitzgeald, neither of whom ever looked comfortable. He had in-form options he could have made more use of, but didn’t.

    2. After the French game we briefly lost our nerve, and reneged on our ball-in-hand gameplan, seemingly in order to ensure victory against a dreadful Scotland team. This resulted in us kicking the ball away 50 times against Wales, when we looked a complete shambles.

  2. Bang on Shane.

    I wouldn’t agree with the theory that the team got hammered in the media either – a number of pundits have been inordinately supportive of the management and failed to question basic errors, like playing the ruck laws like it was 2009, instead pointing the finger at referees.

    The camp dynamic was very strange for the first half of the tournament, and the railing against referees/media was part of this. I would say 90% of the penalties given away in the first 3 games were absolutely bang on – and the rest were scrum penalties which can go either way.

    It only seemed to hit home that the players were at fault after Nigel Owens kept pinging us – he has been a referee that Irish teams have always liked, and it was hard to say 3 refs were wrong.

    England are a good side, and I still agree with Dan Carter that they are the NH #1 team in RWC (especially because of their draw), but they still lack a Plan B, and I think on form Ireland are just a better side, with better footballers.

    We seem to have a bit more depth now, a gameplan, and momentum, but my main worry is O’Leary will walk straight into the team, and slow down all the good work!

  3. Think about it laterally, are Ireland too scared to put younger, more inexperienced players on the field? The team relies on what I like to call ‘ The Old Guard’. This ‘club’ includes players such as O’Driscoll, O’Gara, O’Connell’ O’Callahan, Stringer etc. Ireland need to start including up and coming players into their Squad such as Jonathan Sexton (who had an outstanding game against England last week) if they are to succeed in the future.

  4. Ireland had appalling discipline early in the tournament. In the France match, for instance, France rarely got near the 22. Not because of good defence or turnovers, but because Ireland conceded kickable penalties in the first 3 phases in the Ireland half.

    Ireland have a lot of room for improvement. O’Connell and O’Callaghan rarely make yards. Why use them as ball carriers? The penalty count has improved, but what was Kidney doing while they lost the penalty count in match after match prior to the England match? Seems like there is a failure of leadership there.

    I am not sure that they have more than two props, so clearly they can’t win the RWC.

    I love the idea of the forced maul to achieve a turnover. Whether that would work against the Bokke, I don’t know.

  5. I dont know if I agree with James Mace there, of the players you’ve named as the supposed ‘Old Guard’, Stringer didnt start a game in the competition and wouldnt have been in the 22 but for O’Leary’s injuries and O’Gara started less games than Sexton, who started both ‘big games’ at home to France and England. Also, what team wouldnt put a lot of reliance on O’Driscoll and O’Connell, who are both world-class and on top-form. Earlier in the tournament I would have agreed with you about O’Callaghan but his top-class performances have won me over. Kidney has got some favourites in the squad but not partitcularly the ones you have named. I would ask how O’Leary was picked to start the tournament at 9 ahead of the much more in-form Eoin Reddan and how Denis Leamy is still in the squad when we have so many quality back-rows in Ireland who dont give away penalties every time they go near a ruck. As for Paddy Wallace, only Kidney knows why he is on the bench, covering the outside backs, while Fergus McFadden was dropped from the 22 completely despite scoring against France…

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