The Ireland I’d like to see

To dwell too long over the legitimacy or otherwise of the penalty awarded against Stephen Ferris in the last play of Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Wales on Sunday is to miss the point.

Even if Ireland hung on at the death to record a one-point win, it would not change the fact that there are issues to address in the way Ireland are playing at present.

The problems that contributed to Ireland’s defeat in the quarter-final of the World Cup were still in evidence on Sunday and that is a worry. As a game, rugby keeps evolving with different trends emerging for a period until they are either countered by tactics or the lawmakers. The 2007 World Cup was characterised by endless bouts of aerial ping pong which continued until one of the sides blinked. It was turgid stuff and something had to be done about it.

The lawmakers intervened and by insisting on the implementation of existing law in relation to offside in open play, the game was transformed. Teams now had space to counter-attack and retain possession as any chaser had to be put onside by the kicker or a player coming from a position behind the kicker. In addition, a player within 10 metres of the catcher had to retreat thus offering the space to run. The fact that a sea change was implemented overnight by simply applying the law as it was meant to be in the first place outlines why rugby can be a complex game at times.

That subtle change also means the ball is now being brought into contact much more, thus increasing the competition for possession at the breakdown. The openside flanker is back in vogue, competing for a turnover as the second man in on the tackled player or, alternatively, slowing down opposition ball.

Ireland’s back row, with Sean O’Brien, Denis Leamy and Stephen Ferris contesting the number six jersey, with Jamie Heaslip at number eight and David Wallace at openside, was outstanding, with the option of introducing either Ferris or Leamy off the bench to add a fresh ball-carrying threat for the last quarter. All operated in those positions for their province with the exception more recently of O’Brien, who fluctuates across all three positions, with Shane Jennings sharing the openside role for Leinster.

When Manu Tuilagi crashed into Wallace in Ireland’s final World Cup warm-up game against England in August, Declan Kidney was left with a dilemma. He could accommodate Heaslip, O’Brien and Ferris in the same back row or acknowledge that, against certain opposition, it was vital to have an out-and-out seven. It would have helped if his only viable option, Jennings, had made a more convincing case for inclusion when afforded the chance (even if he did make a big impact when introduced off the bench at half time by Joe Schmidt in last season’s Heineken Cup final). Jennings was a late inclusion for Wallace in the third World Cup warm-up game against France at the Aviva but struggled due to a lack of game time after being out with a broken arm.

Problem is, when Ireland’s current back row face a side with a forager on board, they struggle. When David Pocock was forced off the Australian team for that World Cup pool game in Auckland to be replaced by Ben McCalman, a number eight by trade, it suited the Irish set-up perfectly. This was made abundantly clear to me in the quarter-final when the returning Pocock’s influence at the breakdown was such that he single-handedly turned the game in Australia’s favour against South Africa. It helped that the Springboks lost their own groundhog specialist in Heinrich Brussow after just 20 minutes of that contest. On the previous day, Ireland lost out to Wales, with Sam Warburton immense.

David Wallace is a converted seven but has a number of qualities that helped him grow into the role. He has explosive pace, which enables him to get to the breakdown quickly. He is immensely strong, which enables him to contest possession with the tackled player while staying on his feet, and he has a sharp rugby intellect. It also helped that while he was adapting his game, Ireland had two players in midfield in Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll who were as proficient as any openside in contesting the tackle area.

However, the law has changed now in relation to the role of the player who assists in the tackle and that has made a difference. The best opensides make sure they now arrive second and are not part of the original tackle where you have to release the tackled player and can, therefore, contest for possession immediately.

Kidney’s hands are tied by the fact that none of the provinces, with the exception of Munster’s Niall Ronan, now injured, are playing with a genuine seven. The provinces have managed to compromise to a large degree by being more physical in their clean-out of rucks. Ireland only display that type of ruthlessness sporadically and were passive in the contact area again on Sunday. In my opinion, Peter O’Mahony could develop his game, just like Wallace did, to become a very good seven but Paris and Thierry Dusautoir have come too soon for that.

In the aftermath of the Welsh defeat, everyone has become obsessed with size in the back line. That in itself is not the solution. Wales are blessed in that the likes of Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and especially George North are all especially gifted rugby players. It is a massive bonus — literally — that they are also huge. Remember England have played the 6ft 7ins and 18st Matt Banahan against Ireland on numerous occasions without any great effect because he has nothing like the skill set of the three Welsh giants.

Remember also the 6ft 6ins Alex Cuthbert was ruthlessly withdrawn by Warren Gatland at half time on Sunday because he was exposed defensively. Ireland didn’t help their cause because they were passive in defence and their line speed was poor.

This offered the big Welsh runners the opportunity to build momentum and offload in the tackle. I just wonder with Ireland’s excellent defence coach Less Kiss now also looking to make the breakthrough as an attack coach, if the emphasis on defence was not what it should have been in the build-up to this game.

I would love to see Tommy Bowe given an opportunity to fill Brian O’Driscoll’s jersey, with Keith Earls restored to the wing. Kidney has also toyed with the option of playing Ronan O’Gara at out-half with Jonny Sexton as an additional playmaker at inside centre against England last August. Indeed, it is worth remembering that they played in that formation for the last 30 minutes in that historic win over Australia at the World Cup. Food for thought.

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