Reasons to be fearful pile up

AT the final whistle on Saturday, the Samoan players, whom we know to be deeply religious, gathered in a huddle, sank to their knees and said a collective prayer of thanks for their Aviva Stadium performance.

However, with the All Blacks looming large on the horizon, it is the Irish players who are desperately in need of some divine inspiration at this stage.

It is difficult to put a finger on why Ireland seem devoid of confidence.

Yes, they have had a poor sequence of results recently but there were mitigating circumstances in those games especially in the end of season tour matches when so many experienced bodies were injured.

In many respects, Saturday’s performance was even more worrying than the narrow defeat to South Africa.

When one looks at the displays of England and Wales over the weekend, against highly rated southern hemisphere opposition, it would appear that they are making progress. Ireland, by comparison, seem to have hit a wall.

England were inspirational in Twickenham on Saturday delivering a performance rich in quality, pace and invention, recording their biggest win over Australia, the same side which beat New Zealand only a few weeks ago.

Martin Johnson’s outfit are transformed of late and look like being a serious force in the Six Nations for the first time since winning the World Cup seven years ago.

New Zealand struggled in the opening two games of their tour against the Wallabies and England – perhaps with the benefit of hindsight the latter side didn’t receive enough credit for that performance – as they battled to rediscover the swagger that characterised their recent Tri Nation’s success.

Unfortunately for Declan Kidney and company, the All Blacks found it again in Edinburgh against a Scottish side with three impressive test victories on the bounce away to Ireland in Dublin and twice in Argentina last summer.

Over the course of the last two weekend’s Kidney has offered 25 players a starting slot in an Irish jersey with three more featuring off the bench. For whatever reason, apart from the inspirational 15 minute cameo appearance from Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara against South Africa, no one has delivered a stand out performance.

On Saturday, Samoan scrum half Kahn Fotualii was deservedly given the man-of-the-match award and with the possible exception of Devin Toner, no Irish player was under serious consideration for the accolade.

The problem for the Irish management is that there are so many areas of the game which are substandard and a cause for concern that it will be very difficult to address them all before Saturday evening’s clash.

Chief among these is a lack of physicality in the contact area, a lack of creativity in broken play and a set scrum that has now become a focal point for all opposition.

The one that scares me most in relation to the New Zealand game is the passive nature of Ireland’s play at the breakdown.

Former Ireland prop Des Fitzgerald has a great phrase which he quotes before conducting a coaching session in the art of scrummaging. It is along the lines that “the scrum is not important unless you are bad at it”. On successive weekends, with two completely different starting front rows, Ireland have been poor in this sector.

In this respect the snails pace at which teams are now forced to engage does not suit the Irish. Our scrummaging style is dependent on an aggressive hit on engagement but that is very difficult to achieve under the new calling system.

On Saturday, Ireland conceded three penalties and four free kicks in the scrum. That is criminal. At one stage referee Keith Brown, one assumes under instruction from IRB chief Paddy O’Brien after all the top referees were in conclave during the week, was heard declaring to the players in an apologetic voice after yet another series of collapsed engagements, “we know it’s going to be a slow call”. Why, I ask? It didn’t appear to be as slow in the other games.

The key element however is that a Samoan scrum, minus the services of the colossal Toulouse tight head prop Census Johnson, coped far better than Ireland did. It didn’t help either that Ireland failed to put any pressure on the Samoan lineout, pilfering just one throw despite the presence of the giant Toner who had an impressive debut.

The biggest concern however was the complete lack of physicality in the contact area. For the second week in a row, Ireland were bullied up front. The most frightening thing here is that the breakdown is New Zealand’s stock in trade. Even the Samoans, more renowned for their silky running skills, gave Ireland a lesson in this respect.

To compound matters further Ireland seem to have lost their creative streak behind the scrum. Proven broken field runners like Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe were forced to run laterally, down blind alleys, without any dummy runners making themselves available either to fix the Samoan defence or take the offload.

New Zealand will watch and wonder. A victory over Ireland will set them up nicely for yet another Grand Slam of the home unions when they travel to Wales the following week. They will specifically target Ireland at the breakdown and if Daniel Carter is offered quick ball from this area, Ireland will be left chasing shadows.

Perhaps all the negative comment and fallout from the ticket affair allied to the lack of atmosphere at the new stadium is impacting on the team. For whatever reason, the confident strut that defined this group of players in the recent past seems to have deserted them.

There is a definite void in the leadership stakes up front in the absence of Paul O’Connell and nobody has grasped that mantle and stepped into the breach.

Jamie Heaslip has the capacity and presence to do so and has plenty incentive after his travails in New Plymouth last June.

There is much to concentrate the minds of the Irish management this week as they seek to address the issues that have dulled their effectiveness in the two November tests.

Ireland have always performed best when a fear factor of being exposed by a superior force hangs over the team.

We have plenty of reasons to be fearful this week.

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