Samoan test crucial for our learning process

AS IF things weren’t bad enough.

On top of the ticketing issue addressed elsewhere today, and the disintegration of the commemorative jersey, comes confirmation of further leaks in the roof of the Aviva Stadium. Irish rugby is experiencing teething problems on and off the field at present but at least most of them are repairable. Every new home comes with an accompanying snag list and I have no doubt that stadium director Martin Murphy will resolve those issues quickly. The other concerns need to be addressed also.

To on field matters first. The most surprising and indeed worrying aspect of last Saturday’s defeat to South Africa was that it was our southern hemisphere visitors who adapted better on the day to the deteriorating weather conditions that prevailed on a typical autumnal evening.

The scary thing about that is the Springbok squad only arrived in Dublin two days prior to the game and therefore had very little time to acclimatise. For the previous two weeks their squad, minus the Currie Cup final panellists, had been preparing at altitude on a firm dry surface in Johannesburg at 25 degrees centigrade.

Irish rugby has moved on a lot from the days when we prayed for rain to help negate a superior force, and that is as it should be. A change in weather conditions does necessitate an adjustment to the way you approach the game and our game management skills should allow for that to happen mid stream in the heat of battle.

To be fair, in order for any half back pairing to dictate the tactical flow of a game, the basic principle of being able to win your own set piece ball is paramount. Unfortunately Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton did not enjoy that facility on Saturday. The lineout malfunctioned badly on a day when everything had to be spot on given the quality of the South African defensive strategy in that area. Victor Matfield had his homework done and Ireland failed to react.

The scrum also encountered problems against a well drilled eight. The fact that the Springbok front row played as a unit in that Currie Cup final only seven days previous and enjoyed a good scrummaging contest against Western Provence was a big advantage. By way of contrast, Ireland’s front row combination from Leinster, Ulster and Munster have not enjoyed huge game time together and suffered as the game went on.

For me, Cian Healy and Tony Buckley represent the future and should be persevered with and exposed to this type of examination as much as possible. For that reason I hope Healy is back for the game against New Zealand. Buckley’s potential unavailability for the rest of the autumn series due to a hip injury is a disappointment.

Tom Court did well on his introduction for Buckley on Saturday but is primarily a loose head and gets a chance to impress from there against Samoa. With Buckley out, the management have resisted the temptation to give Mike Ross a run which is unfortunate given that we know exactly what John Hayes brings to the table. Ireland will need three tight head props at the World Cup and time is running out to assess Ross’s credentials.

DESPITE ten changes for the Samoa game on Saturday, it still looks a very potent Irish side with the selection of Luke Fitzgerald at full back the most exciting of all. He has the potential to cause havoc from this position despite the fact that he had a poor outing there for Leinster in their opening Magners League game against Glasgow and has had limited opportunity there since. At that stage he was still finding his feet after a difficult ten month injury layoff and deserves another go. Weather permitting he could be the star of the show.

The most important thing for Ireland is to get their heads right. Of concern to me was the comment from Rory Best yesterday when looking back at the South African game he said “we just didn’t arrive at the ground for some reason”. In other words they were flat which is very surprising given the occasion and the opposition. Now that is a worry. The players need to prepare for the fact that the stadium will have plenty of sparsely populated areas on Saturday and block that out of their minds.

I also agree with the comments from Alan Gaffney that Ireland cannot afford to go back into their shells and abandon their ball in hand, recycling game. Flexibility is the key with smart rugby the order for the day. The challenge lays in the fact that Samoa and South Africa will be poles apart in the way they will approach their tests against Ireland. The secret is in making the opposition play on your terms. South Africa achieved that last weekend and dominated as a result.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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