DONAL LENIHAN: Is Tommy Bowe the answer at full-back?

IT’S so long since Ireland lost a game that one had forgotten how bad it feels. Those once familiar pictures of dejected figures in green jerseys at the final whistle had almost faded into sepia-tone. It was inevitable that a reality check would come at some stage and the fact that it occurred in Paris shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Overall the quality of rugby last weekend was a marked improvement on round one. Some teams are now up and running and confidence is soaring. The game of the weekend was in Cardiff, with Wales showing some incredible fortitude to win a game that seemed beyond their reach. To score 17 points in six minutes is a remarkable achievement at this level, even if the Welsh were aided by some crass naivety from Scotland. Little wonder Andy Robinson was so crestfallen at the end.

Scotland played their best rugby in years and not only finished empty-handed, but also lost three key players for the rest of the championship. It never ceases to amaze me when professional players show such a lack of awareness of the laws of the game. Down to 13 men and locked together on 24 points apiece, all the Scots had to do was kick the restart dead and the game was over. In the circumstances a draw would have offered some tangible reward for their outstanding efforts. In the end — nothing.

Ireland will look back on Paris and, unfortunately, will not be able to draw on any such crumbs of comfort from a game in which they were comprehensively beaten. The biggest area of concern will centre around a very poor defensive performance, given that it provided the foundation for their success in last season’s Championship. Ireland’s defensive coach, Les Kiss, has done an outstanding job since being plucked from relative obscurity by Declan Kidney but he has a bit of work to do before leaving for London next week.

Ireland conceded as many tries at Stade de France (three) as they did in the entire Championship last season.

France, it must be said, were very clever in the manner in which they unlocked Ireland’s defensive system. Firstly, they used the likes of Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud to attract two Irish defenders and both had the physical presence and soft hands to lay the ball off to supporting runners on either shoulder.

They practiced that for ten minutes in their pre-match warm up.

They also mastered the art of producing quick ball, aided by a vastly superior physical presence at the breakdown, tieing in Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy and then running at the mismatches when Ireland were forced to defend big blind sides with front five forwards. France are the best side in the international game at exploiting the narrow space available on the blind side of rucks and mauls.

They have perfected it over the years and it has always been part of their armoury.

For the first time since coming on board Kidney has suffered on the injury front. Through prudent management and excellent medical attention, Ireland have had far less injuries to cope with than all their counterparts elsewhere. That couldn’t last forever.

One of the coaches stated ambitions after his appointment was that he wanted to build a squad with greater depth, and now he will have to test the progress made on that front.

Winning the Churchill Cup along with all the domestic trophies on offer last season suggested that Ireland has started to produce a conveyor belt of players.

Reality would suggest otherwise.

With Rob Kearney now joining Luke Fitzgerald and Geordan Murphy on the crocked list, all of a sudden the full-back cupboard looks a little thin.

Keith Earls looked very comfortable on the wing in the opening half in Paris but has no experience of playing at full-back at this level. I would prefer to see him retained on the wing against England.

Tommy Bowe proved on the Lions tour that he has the experience and temperament to play in a variety of positions and he could well be an option worth looking at if Kearney is ruled out.

He has played at full-back for the Ospreys on a number of occasions with a good degree of success.

AN indication of the reserve strength of any squad is reflected in the make-up of its bench.

Due to injuries to Marcus Horan, Denis Leamy and Donncha O’Callaghan, Ireland’s was distinctly lacking in international experience in Paris with Tom Court, Donnacha Ryan, Sean O’Brien and Jonathan Sexton all learning their trade at this level. Contrast that with France. If one only takes into account their three recent games against New Zealand, South Africa and Scotland, for a variety of reasons,

France started against Ireland without 14 players who started at least one of those three big games. Name check these: Damien Traille, Aurelien Rougerie, Benjamin Fall, Yann David, David Marty, Maxime Mermoz, Cedric Heymans, Julien Dupuy, Fabien Barcella, Sylvain Marconnet, Sebastian Chabal, Romain Millo-Chluski, Julien Bonnaire and Louis Picamoles.

Add in Dimitri Szarzewski, Julien Puricelli, Maxime Medard, Luc Ducalcon, Julien Pierre, Julien Malzieu and Frederic Michelak who were introduced off the bench in one of those tests and you see what real strength in depth is all about.

The French committee allowed Marc Lievremont the luxury of chopping and changing his side in his two year reign to date — he used 70 different players in the 23 internationals prior to Saturday — without any fear of his job. Would Kidney or indeed Eddie O’Sullivan before him be allowed that luxury by the IRFU? Not on your life. I don’t think the Irish public would put up with it either.

Tournaments are there to be won; summer tours and autumn internationals are, within reason, the place to experiment.

As a result of the French policy, Lievremont has now managed to separate the wheat from the chaff and he now has a serious squad at his disposal 18 months out from the World Cup. From here on in it is all about silverware and even at this early juncture, the French are in pole position to win a Grand Slam.

They already enjoy a +37 points differential over Ireland and have yet to play Italy, who have to travel to the Stade de France.

The focus now switches to London where Ireland are more than capable of winning. England, despite remaining unbeaten at this stage, have problems. Foremost among these is the issue facing Martin Johnson at out half.

Johnson is currently allowing his personal relationship with Jonny Wilkinson to cloud his vision. The big Leicester man will be forever remembered in England as the man who led his side to World Cup glory. He knows that they would not have won it without the genius of Wilkinson.

On Sunday, in Rome he introduced six of his seven replacements. Toby Flood was left on the bench despite the fact that Wilkinson was not delivering and even his place kicking was seriously out of kilter.

Injuries have taken its toll on this great player and Flood looks better positioned to exploit the daring presence of Riki Flutey, who looked very sharp on his return from injury.

Kidney isn’t the only one with selection issues to ponder prior to Twickenham.


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