DONAL LENIHAN: Top marks for application, but power and panache missing

England tried it before imploding spectacularly at the 2011 World Cup and now Ireland have followed suit.

Wearing a predominantly black outfit may help to make you look like New Zealand but it doesn’t guarantee you will play like them. Perhaps Declan Kidney sanctioned the strip as a sharp reminder to his side of that horrible day in Hamilton last June and that record 60-0 defeat to the real All Blacks.

When the Irish squad assembled at Carton House on August 24 to review the fallout from that tour — and specifically what happened in that third test — a number of issues were identified for attention. Top of the list was why the team had a tendency to start slowly in test games. Some of the squad raised questions over their standards in training while others reinforced the point that, despite all the success at provincial level, performing in an Irish shirt had to be their number one priority.

Jonny Sexton put it bluntly: “There has to be some type of response”.

Saturday provided the first opportunity to translate those words into deeds when, despite all the disruptions due to injury, the Irish side still retained 13 players who had been on the summer tour down under. By half-time Sexton had reason to be pleased with the response delivered by all around him with Ireland, for once, sprinting out of the blocks for a merited nine point half-time lead.

On the stroke of half-time, South African captain Jean de Villiers could be heard complaining to referee Wayne Barnes about what Ireland were up to at the breakdown. For this Springbok side, who base so much of their game around dominance in that crucial phase, it was just about the biggest compliment that Ireland could get. The Springbok captain had every reason to question the referee as his side had conceded 11 penalties to that point (ten is deemed an acceptable level for 80 minutes of test action).

The biggest issue facing Ireland was getting the balance right between not taking a backward step in the inevitable war of attrition up front while, at the same time not getting sucked into a brawl. Unfortunately that is exactly what transpired and that was a contest South Africa were always going to win.

This is not a very good Springbok side but despite all their injuries the one constant in their selection is an abundance of physicality. They were bereft of any creativity or inventiveness and won the game in one decent ten minute passage of play which coincided with Jamie Heaslip’s sojourn to the sin bin, registering ten unanswered points. Their back play was appalling throughout and as a spectacle this game offered a poor return for the public.

The problem with the modern game is that power is everything and South Africa have that in spades. Teams like New Zealand and on their day Australia can deal with that because of the pace with which they recycle possession, allowing them showcase their superior off-loading game. Ireland don’t have that ability at the moment and apart from trailing runs off Sexton from Simon Zebo — who coped well with playing out of position — and Tommy Bowe, Ireland once again failed to offer anything meaningful in attack. In fact over the entire eighty minutes, Ireland never looked like scoring a try and failed to trouble the scoreboard in the entire second half.

While the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry, Mike McCarthy, Donncha Ryan and Cian Healy competed magnificently at the breakdown in not only slowing down Springbok ball and manufacturing either penalties or turnovers, they were never dynamic or ruthless enough to engineer quick ball for themselves.

New Zealand have mastered the art of creating three second rucks where they suck in sufficient opposition numbers into the contact area yet manage to recycle quickly enough to shift the point of attach within seconds. That puts opposition defences under all kinds of pressure.

Ireland never enjoyed that luxury on Saturday and suffered as a result. When they did manage to up the tempo of the game, they looked dangerous and were clearly the superior force behind the scrum. Unfortunately they never generated the type of ball required to make that advantage pay.

South African coach Heyneke Meyer used the break wisely to address problems with the Springbok maul and to question why a physically underpowered Irish forward unit were dominating the physical exchanges against the biggest bullies in the class. He got the desired response with a clinical display for ruthless power in the third quarter when that revitalised Springbok maul sucked the life out of the Irish forwards. In the circumstances the Irish management may have been better advised introducing fresh legs up front about ten earlier than they did. In the end the majority of the pack were out on their feet having competed manfully for so long but were eventually wore down.

There was much to admire from Ireland on Saturday from a side that gave everything to the cause but in the end the explosiveness and ball carrying ability of Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris along with the attacking prowess of Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll was badly missed.

Ireland need more of a physical presence in midfield and this could be accommodated by offering Bowe a start at thirteen, repositioning Keith Earls at full back with Zebo reverting to the wing. It is a combination worth looking at with O’Driscoll out until the new year.

Some comfort may be derived from the fact that we are not the only nation experiencing a paucity of quality players in certain crucial positions. If the lack of tight head props has been a real concern for Declan Kidney for some time then South Africa have similar issues at out half. Morne Steyn who had a dreadful test series against England last June and an equally poor Rugby Championship while his replacement Patrick Lambie offered no direction whatsoever on Saturday.

As for IRB rankings, as I pointed out during the week, it is a thing of nothing unless Scotland, in ninth place, manufacture a win over New Zealand or South Africa this month. The former was never going to happen despite a valiant effort in Murrayfield yesterday and despite how bad South Africa are, the latter is also unlikely.

The net result is we will drop to eight behind Argentina in seventh. Judging by results at the weekend, specifically Argentina’s fourteen point win over Wales in Cardiff, nobody could argue with that.

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