More questions than answers

IF the objective of Saturday’s game against France was to dampen Irish expectations on the eve of the World Cup then it had the desired effect. This performance was not on the agenda.

Despite the defeats by Scotland and France over the previous weekends, there was sufficient evidence in those displays to suggest Ireland were on track in terms of preparation and there were enough positive signs to carry the squad forward to the next game.

With the World Cup squad due to be announced today, the Irish management had precious few boxes to tick prior to Saturday’s game. To what degree the second half collapse will influence their thinking remains to be seen, but this is not the time for panic.

Declan Kidney has planned the build-up to the tournament meticulously but the manner with which Ireland were bullied in the contact area by their French counterparts will come as a bit of a shock.

With the exceptions of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and David Wallace, this was Ireland’s strongest side against a French outfit who only fielded six players who started against the Irish in the Six Nations.

We always knew the French were capable of fielding three sides of equal international standard given the numbers playing in the French championship and Saturday proved that assertion.

Given that they used 29 different players over the course of the last two weekends and still found no place for the likes of Yannick Jauzion, Clement Poitrenaud, Julien Malzieu, Mathieu Bastareaud, Anthony Floch, Sebastian Chabal, Thomas Domingo and Yannick Nyanga, you begin to get the picture.

The most infuriating aspect of this game is that Ireland started with such assurance and it appeared they had the capacity to blow the French away. The set piece, as it remained throughout the contest, was rock solid and Ireland had no difficulty in retaining possession and constructing a multi phase attack, something they were unable to achieve in Bordeaux. The French were chasing shadows in that opening quarter.

The difficulty for Ireland was that a return of eight points from such dominance was insufficient. The difference between the sides, from an attacking sense, was encapsulated by the French try from veteran full-back Cedric Heymans which had everything Ireland’s attack lacked.

While Ireland managed to put great width to their game, their offensive play was far too lateral and played into the hands of the French drift defence. They were quite happy to shepherd the Irish attack towards the touchline with one defender covering two attackers with ease. Contrast that with the French attack where their two wingers were constantly coming in at angles and shifting the point of attack.

For that French try, Aurelien Rougerie, who has completed his transformation from quality international winger to centre — something the Irish management should strongly consider with Tommy Bowe — dragged the Irish midfield across the pitch by feigning to take on Brian O’Driscoll on the outside.

The Ireland captain drifted out to cover the space in the certainty that long term partner Gordon D’Arcy would shore up his inside shoulder. Such was the sumptuous inside line taken by the 33-year-old Heymans, facilitated by the perfect off load by Rougerie, that D’Arcy was struggling to close the space and the Irish defence was opened up. Ireland failed to augment their attacking play with similar decoy runners to check that French drift defence.

Ireland’s lineout was vastly improved from last week with a blemish free return but on this occasion Tomás O’Leary was so out of sorts with his passing that they failed to capitalise on some great off the top ball from Paul O’Connell. O’Leary has had a difficult run of back and eye injuries and is struggling to find his passing game.

The problem with World Cup warm-up games so early in the season, is that everyone is sprinting to find their international form from a standing start. That suits some players better than others.

Kidney now faces a dilemma. He has had O’Leary’s physicality, pace and aggressive cover defence earmarked for the key contest against the Australia on September 17 for some time. However, Conor Murray’s emergence has muddied the waters somewhat in recent months. Up to last Saturday morning O’Leary, Eoin Reddan, who played very well when introduced for the Corkman in the second half, and Isaac Boss were already pencilled in as his three scrum-halves. We will find out today if his thoughts have altered on that front.

It has also being doing the rounds that a number of players had already been informed by Kidney that they will not be travelling to New Zealand, one of whom is John Hayes.

On the evidence of the last two weeks, and in particular the poor showing of Tony Buckley, it will be interesting to see whether that will be revisited.

The other veteran Irish performer who looked set to lose out on selection was Geordan Murphy, but does the injury to Felix Jones on Saturday alter that decision?

It will have been a very busy weekend for the Irish management team with that disappointing performance against the French casting a big shadow over proceedings.

At least today’s announcement of the final touring party will remove the distractions and uncertainty in the camp. That will clear the way for a final assault against England in the Aviva on Saturday and an immediate opportunity to address the areas that have under-performed over the last few weeks. Ireland could badly do with a win to make the long journey to New Zealand two days later that bit more pleasurable.

Horan, Hayes and Fitzgerald likely to miss out

THE indications are that Declan Kidney is considering a change of heart and opting for a 16/14 split of forwards and backs instead of 17/13 based on the lack of any real form from his reserve props. That is bad news for Marcus Horan while it appears that John Hayes is set to lose out to Tony Buckley despite the fact that the Sale bound tight head struggled against both France and Connacht.

It will be interesting to see if his poor showing on Thursday night has forced any rethink on that front or if the injury to Cian Healy on Saturday necessitates reintroducing the 17/13 split.

Opting for 14 backs enables Kidney to select two from Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and Geordan Murphy now that Felix Jones is out of the equation.

Kidney will opt to include Paddy Wallace while Fitzgerald looks certain to miss out on his second World Cup in-a-row. The other areas of debate is deciding between Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy for the floating second row/back row role with Ryan in pole position and whether Conor Murray had done enough to unseat Isaac Boss.

KIDNEY’S PROBABLE SQUAD: Backs: R Kearney, T Bowe, A Trimble, K Earls, F McFadden, G Murphy, B O’Driscoll (capt), G D’Arcy, P Wallace, R O’Gara,J Sexton, E Reddan, T O’Leary, I Boss.

Forwards: C Healy, M Ross, T Court,T Buckley, R Best, J Flannery, S Cronin,P O’ Connell, D O Callaghan, L Cullen,D Ryan, S O Brien, J Heaslip, D Wallace,D Leamy, S Ferris.

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