Strange day, strange performance by Ireland last Saturday.
For television duties, I was one seat away from where I have sat as an Irish substitute in the stadium. And quite bizarre it was, watching the warm-up, wondering would the ball bounce towards me, triggering fanciful thoughts of jogging and kicking again. A chance maybe that I’d get a call, an opportunity to change the game?
Pathetic am I, though in mitigation, this was my first Irish game since my own international career went south.
Processing what I was watching is like being in the body of two Ronan O’Garas. As a player, you understand the human frailties that can suck the intensity from a performance, irrespective of how well prepped you are. As a coach, you yearn to be sitting alongside Less Kiss and Joe Schmidt in the video review room earlier this week as they interrogate the shocking defensive lapses that gave Australia a couple of their four tries.
In either space though, you anticipate a full-blooded response on Sunday against the All Blacks, because that is our default setting. It’s a glib cliche but I expect to be on the edge of my seat on Sunday. That much should be guaranteed. Do we have the quality to beat the All Blacks? Maybe not. Are we a proud nation? We are, and with the characters in the squad, I just don’t see back-to-back disappointing and dispiriting performances.
I’ve mentioned the resigned body language of his Irish colleagues when Peter O’Mahony was spear-tackled late in the test last Saturday. They were broken men at the stage. Australia have proved a point; Ireland were just desperate to get off the pitch, because it can be an embarrassing place. In Lansdowne Road last Saturday, you had a very united batch of players stripped bare by Australia.
I’ve been there. You can’t hide, much as you might want to, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want the ground to swallow you up and never be seen again. Sunday morning as that player is an horrific experience. Sunday, bloody Sunday. There’s losing, there’s being beaten, and there’s under-performing at home in the November internationals when everything in the IRFU’s programme is designed to perform at that juncture. Key players are given an extended pre-season, two or three Rabo games, a couple of Heineken Cup fixtures and then unleashed. Or so the theory goes. That’s why the players are so disappointed with themselves. This season is no different to any previous player management programme, so the under-cooked argument has always been there for people if they want to use it. These are all carefully thought-out welfare programmes by the IRFU and every detail is addressed, personally and collectively.
The challenge now is producing a performance. New Zealand is that very rare phenomenon where a performance doesn’t necessarily take care of the result. Against most teams, if you perform well, you invariably win. With the All Blacks, that’s not the case. Intensity is imperative. It should be a given at this level of rugby, because so much is framed by the early collisions. Essentially, you start with a brawl, then you get to play some rugby after winning the physical battle. Look at the early sequences against Australia — we lost the first lineout, we lost the second lineout, we lost the first carry. There was no opportunity in the first 10 minutes to introduce ourselves to our visitors. Ireland went into the interval 12-15 down having played no rugby at all. And just when you thought we might get away with it, Johnny Sexton grimaces. The implications were self-evident.
The mindset for playing the All Blacks is pressure, pressure. And then more pressure. Inflict as much mayhem on them as possible. And even that may not be enough because their workrate is incredible. They’re the one team in world rugby who make you realise at every break in the play how little time you have on the ball, especially as a 10. They contest the breakdown, hammer into rucks, they slow ball and then you have three back rows hunting you down every time, never mind the centres and the 10.
But Ireland doesn’t have to go that far back for the benefit of denying New Zealand the platform they see as their right. Christchurch in June, 2012. We didn’t give them a start because we took the game to them. That’s why I’m referring to early body language; it nearly always determines how a game is going to go.
The problems last Saturday are not systematic, they were largely individual. Fellas look an awful lot better than they are when they play with intensity — Australia exemplified that beautifully. Their line speed was impressive, while Ireland looked completely one-paced. The defensive performance was staggeringly poor, and not just for Cooper’s early second half try. Let’s examine that try a little further: Australia’s attack set-up was their No 11 in behind the two centres (on the openside) which triggered Tommy Bowe as the first defender inside Ian Madigan. My reading of the situation is that Madigan had to tackle Cooper —however, I seem to be the only person with that view. If Madigan gets up fast and smashes something, Ireland don’t have a problem.
I’m offering the players’ perspective here, but during the week, for every five reps of that situation Johnny Sexton would have faced, Ian Madigan might have had one. Did the Ireland ‘B’ back line run those same Australian plays as the front-liners? You can always argue they should know the defensive systems but in an international week, when you have such little time, a lot is focused on attack.
The cumulative effect of a series of knockdowns was evident in Australia’s rolling maul try. If they needed to go another 15 yards, they’d have driven Ireland back further, that’s how easy it was for them.
The totems then become soft targets for brainless analysis. The trouble with Brian O’Driscoll is that he is so good that, undercooked though he may be in terms of game time, he will always be thrown straight into a test match if available. He has forged that for himself. But Brian at 13, as good as he’s been there his career, can’t have a massively direct influence on a game. His performances are as a result of what numbers one-to-10 do. If Ireland had smashed Australia early on, would Brian have looked so out of kilter last Saturday? Ditto Paul O’Connell: he has always stepped up, he’s such an honest and decent professional. But he’s also a perfectionist. I know he would have had his troops perfectly prepared. The only thing they forgot is that they were going to war.
Yet people must understand professional sport is played in the now. How easy it is for the rest of us to fall into the trap of dissecting it on a laptop.
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