Those of us hoping the World Cup would spark Ireland into life and reignite their form, which had been so absent in the summer series, were dealt a reality check on Sunday morning after another sobering performance from Declan Kidney’s side.
Conditions were poor and the USA were particularly motivated, given the emotional backdrop of the day in question, but Eddie O ‘Sullivan’s Eagles should have been put to the sword in a far more convincing and emphatic fashion. Bluntly, Ireland were poor. The party line after a performance like this was always going to be, ‘we got the win, this is a World Cup and winning is all that counts.’
This is of course correct but it is the consistently mediocre performances that is concerning. Similarly, a win is hardly something to be shouting from the rooftops about against a team that had four professional players in their starting fifteen. Lest we forget that the England Saxons put eighty-seven points on this USA side when they met in the Churchill Cup in June.
To be honest, it is not even the winning margin that is the problem. Even if Jonny Sexton had landed those kicks, it would merely serve to paper over the cracks of a dreadful performance. What is more alarming is Ireland’s complete lack of direction and cutting edge in attack. The attacking patterns that were so evident in the final game of the Six Nations against England seem non-existent now.
This Irish side can, at times, look somewhat lost as to how they should be playing when they have the ball. Tactic number one is unleashing a back row forward in the midfield, as ably demonstrated so often by Sean O’Brien and more recently by Stephen Ferris. Kidney remarked after the match on Sunday that the USA played intelligently by filling the midfield with the likes of Todd Clever to combat this tactic. What does he expect them to do??
In the pouring rain in New Plymouth on Sunday, Ireland gained a real dominance in the set piece and in turn, the rolling maul. Yet they ignored this for large periods, somewhat surprisingly. The handling was also very poor; with fourteen handling errors in total compared to five from the USA. The conditions and nerves undoubtedly played a part in this but there should be enough experience in this side, both of these conditions and of the big games, to reduce that figure fairly dramatically.
This team needs confidence. From the outside looking in, it genuinely looks like they are severely lacking in self belief. These are top class players, many of whom look like different animals in the Heineken Cup and Magners League. It shouldn’t take much to inject some confidence into this team but they do need more conviction in how they are trying to play.
If high tempo play is the order of the day, as it should be, then Ireland need much quicker ruck ball and have to live on the gain line. Otherwise, the play will become aimless like we have seen in recent weeks.
Time is not exactly on Ireland’s side to correct these problems as they face the small matter of the Tri Nations champions on Saturday morning. Australia are the genuine article and legitimate contenders to win the tournament outright. If Ireland are to have any chance against them, a lot of elements need to come together for them and even at that, it will prove an extremely difficult task.
But there is a chance; there is always a chance. The team Declan Kidney has picked is very strong on paper with the back row in particular about as dynamic a trio as you will see. Sean O’Brien will join Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip at the back of the scrum and all three have the potential be explosive with ball in hand. One (or all) of these wrecking balls should be tasked with hitting Quade Cooper early doors. It doesn’t matter if it is a little late but Ireland need to ruffle his feathers.
The caveat of course to selecting a back row that are all so similar in styles is that there isn’t a breakdown merchant among them and the opponents just happen to have the best in the world at this particular trade in David Pocock. Sean O’Brien will be a busy man.
Elsewhere in the team, Kidney has kept faith with Jonny Sexton at outhalf, amidst pressure from Ronan O’Gara, and has partnered him with his Leinster teammate Eoin Reddan. This can only aid Sexton and whatever about USA, the St. Marys man must convert Ireland’s opportunities against the Wallabies.
Ronan O’Gara will not be happy with the decision and it was interesting to read Brendan Fanning’s article during the week, which highlighted deterioration in the relationship between O’Gara and Kidney.
To look at it simplistically, Ireland seemingly have no form and Australia look to be peaking. Robbie Dean’s side have class throughout and a backline that can score from anywhere, marshalled by the brilliance of Will Genia and Cooper. However can get to Cooper and Ireland will take heart from Italy’s performance in the opening forty minutes against Australia last week, where they retained parity and matched them up front.
An Irish win is very unlikely but these are good players and Ireland will shift up a few gears mentally. The odds are firmly stacked against Ireland but would Declan Kidney want it any other way?
There is always a chance but Ireland have to believe.