Downgrading seems to be all the rage these days. Standard & Poor are doing it to economies, the American government are doing it to extreme weather events, so how about I have a go at doing it to a rugby series?
I would like to now officially re-classify Ireland's tests throughout August as “defrost-up matches”. And even that's being kind.
The IRFU sold over 45,000 tickets for this match, Sky Sports no doubt sold a truckload of adverts, but Irish fans were left feeling their team's World Cup hopes have been sold down the river before the squad even got on the plane.
And believe me – I'm the last person to be negative about our chances, but if we are to assess our chances in New Zealand purely based on these four matches, we can hardly be anything but, can we? Well, I may have found a straw or two to clutch at, but it sure wasn’t easy.
Even though in the grand scheme of things the result didn't really “matter”, the stage was perfectly set for both sides to have a right go at this one – Ireland of course were trying to avoid a whitewash while the visitors were trying to erase both defeat to Wales two weeks before and of course a certain Grand Slam failure at this same venue in March.
Well literally from the kickoff it was clear England were up for it. But the question has to be asked...did they actually play that well on the day? I'm not so sure.
You could argue their defence was solid and this is why we were kept tryless for the third time in four matches. You could also argue that they made a mockery of the offside line and Nigel Owens was too busy policing the breakdown.
Either way – Ireland never got going with possession and it was two blatant lapses in our own defence combined with the expected impeccable placekicking of Jonny Wilkinson that put them out of reach on the day.
I suppose the extra week's rest didn't hurt the English either – although RTE commentator Hugh Cahill got his gaffe-counter rolling before kickoff saying they had lost to Wales only the week before!
On the plus side, two areas of concern for Ireland were well and truly taken care of by the looks of things – our lineouts seem to be back on the table and our penalty count at the breakdown was kept to a minimum.
It was just our choice of options when we actually had the ball that let us down. If indeed you could call them options. You don't mind shipping 20 points so much once you look like you can put at least 21 on the board yourself, and we simply didn't from start to finish.
I believe our problems begin with our 9/10 combinations, and I have some stats to back me up.
Ireland have played 9 test matches this calendar year. Of those, only ONCE did the starting scrum-half & out-half come from the same province. Guess when that was? Yes, that humbling of England back in March.
In all the other games, it was either Reddan & O'Gara or O'Leary & Sexton when the match kicked off. And the one other time we got more than 20 minutes of two players used to playing domestic rugby together on the pitch at the same time, it included Peter Stringer who isn't in Kidney's plans now anyway and besides, his prolonged spell on the Millennium Stadium pitch was forced by an early Reddan injury.
So you could say it appears the coaching staff have been going out of their way to keep familiar 9s and 10s apart?
And the ironic thing is, I thought both Eoin Reddan and Ronan O'Gara played well on Saturday. Many berate the Limerick-born Leinster scrum-half for the interception he threw but I can't understand why more blame isn't directed at Heaslip and Bowe for both sticking to the touchline rather than giving him a basic passing spread so they could exploit the (albeit brief) overlap they had.
As for O'Gara, he may have missed a crucial placekick much like he did in Bordeaux, but seeing how once again he was opting to run the ball more often than not which is not his game, it's hard to find fault. And as the clock neared the 60 minute mark, I could tell that the substitution was always going to be Murray & Sexton on at the same time, playing together in a match for the first time ever I might add.
And as if to add insult for my perceived injury to our chances, what does Sexton do with his first few possessions but kick! They were in the most part effective ones, but again, it seemed we were deliberately shying away from our offensive comfort zones.
So my overall point with this provincial pairing theory is that an argument can be made that Kidney knows full well his Reddan or Boss/Sexton and Murray/O'Gara combinations can work together, as he can see that in training, as well of course by seeing them winning so much silverware for their home provinces last season.
Maybe, JUST maybe, he was deliberately keeping them apart so that the alternative pairings could be tried as much as possible in case his hand is forced in New Zealand? I guess the only way we'll know for sure is when we see the starting lineups are chosen in September.
Other good individual efforts on the day came from Paul O'Connell, who was even more like a man possessed than usual, and of course Geordan Murphy, who no doubt had run down Manu Tuilagi once or twice in training with Leicester but still slotted in seamlessly to the Irish setup and will surely step up admirably when called upon in the coming weeks.
But it simply cannot be ignored that for the fourth week in a row we have shipped an unforgivably easy try down our centre. And there can be no use of provincial pairings as an excuse this time, given it was Drico & Darce at fault last week. That Tuilagi try was clearly down to Keith Earls being all at sea on his coverage – which is a shame because I thought the Munster man was much improved on last week overall with decisive tackles after that incident plus some good runs forward.
I mean, if you want to resort to straw-clutching here, you could say that in each case our centres were found wanting there was a different pairing and they need time together to gel, but just how many matches would we have needed to get them to gel?
None of this can be much consolation for poor David Wallace. You really felt for him, didn't you? Hardly a textbook tackle from Tuilagi – not his strong suit and if Johnson starts him at the World Cup he will be found out – but a tragic piece of luck for one of Ireland's greatest ever 7s who was all but certain of starting down under. Shane Jennings definitely has the talent to replace him, but I wonder if Kidney will be tempted to opt for a Ferris/O'Brien/Heaslip combo instead.
Add this to the fact that Tommy Bowe ignoring the threat of Delon Armitage outside him for England's second try COULD be put down to his not being fully up to test-match speed yet, PLUS the absence of Kearney, O'Driscoll & O'Brien in this last pre-World Cup outing, and I'm starting to wonder just how many recognised starters we can afford to rest against the Americans on September 11?
With everyone supposedly in need of gametime, especially when it comes to playing together in key combinations, I'm not sure if Declan Kidney has the luxury of using the clash with Eddie O'Sullivan's men as an extra so-called “warm-up”. Which in turn, of course, puts our required starters for our big clash with the Wallabies right in the firing line.
Then of course we had the news we were dreading all the more – an eye-socket injury to Cian Healy as the result of a high tackle from the over-eager Delon Armitage. Seems as though all he will miss is the USA game, but still we must keep fingers, toes AND eyes crossed that he'll be ok after that. He may have gotten pinged a few times in the scrums on Saturday, but there can be no doubt that he, Flannery and Ross must comprise our front row in New Zealand when it counts.
So where does that leave us as Irish fans? I mean – if we're to go completely by the results and performances of the past few weeks, we could be forgiven for getting our towel ready to chuck in the ring. Perhaps some Leinster fans, on the other hand, would suggest that a dreadful month to start a season does not an unsuccessful campaign make, given what happened to us after our “Sucky September” last year.
For now, I'm still inclined to lean towards the latter option, but after the 320 minutes of rugby by the men in green I've seen in recent weeks, my hopes could do with being a wee bit warmer. JLP