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Saturday, August 06, 2011

SCOTLAND-10 IRELAND-6

Since this is my first writeup of the new season, I'd love to start off by going easy on the boys in green and trotting out clich├ęs like “these results don't matter” but I'd be lying.

I enjoy sport, and I presume you understand that when I say I “hate my team losing” I don't quite mean it in the same way as when I say I “hate idiots who use their mobile phone while driving”.

But still, hate is the right word. And it doesn't matter if it's my favourite rugby team, the team I'm playing for in a mini game at the park, or even if I'm playing a Playstation game. The act of losing brings on bad thoughts – of course I can shake them off, but I'd still rather not have them.

So although this was a World Cup warmup and the attention should have focused on the players rather than the final score, I was still pissed off when Joe Ansbro touched down for the winning try, especially when I saw in the replay how easily the score was constructed.

It's easy to focus on the strong run by Jackson, super offload to the Northampton Saints centre and his powerful finish, but the real damage was done by the other three centres on the park.

First, Fergus McFadden, who can play 13 but was a virtual spectator throughout this match, got sold down the river by Jackson who danced around him. But the Leinster utility back would have felt confident pushing forward since he'd assume his fellow centre Paddy Wallace was covering behind him.

Yet Wallace was too busy dealing with the frame of Graeme Morrison who wanted nothing to do with the ball and brazenly walked straight into Wallace's tackling lane and blocked him off. It's a move commonly tried, but rarely one executed so perfectly at this level.

This not only took Wallace out of the picture when it came to tackling Jackson, it also made him too late to the party when Ansbro went charging past. Perhaps Felix Jones was left a little wanting in the covering department, but really the damage was already done and that was your ball game.

OK. Got all that off my chest. Now to looking at the match from the viewpoint I really should be using...how did the Irish Possibles get on overall? Besides the starting centres, of course?

Well, from a defensive point of view, I have to say, “solid”. That sounds a bit short of the mark when you consider how much possession the home side had without scoring till the 49th minute, I know. But the way I saw it their ball protection at the breakdown was utterly atrocious and despite emerging victorious I'm not sure Andy Robinson was 100% happy. Still, you can only play what's there before you, and our boys handled the workout very well before the lapse in the closing stages.

Going forward, well, we didn't get anywhere near a decent attacking position until the half-hour mark, and when we did, we were able to keep it through a series of phases, and although the home defence was also solid, managed to earn a penalty and unbelievably become the first team to score.

The offensive strategy du jour seemed to be chuck it out to the wingers as fast as you can and let them either find a gap or boot it forward into space. Fitzgerald & Trimble both managed this pretty well. But I'm not altogether sure this will be our philosophy when it comes to facing the Wallabies. Maybe it will be against the USA? You never know.

All eyes were always going to be on our halfback pairing, as this was the only Irish combination on the park which seemed likely to start in the World Cup. Well, O'Leary was in his first outing after a layoff so although they didn't exactly click, you'd want to see them against France or England before you could really make a call.

Sexton himself had a good game all round I thought. He only did his wraparound a couple of times but still made it work for a gain each time. And considering how little chance he had to dictate the play, I reckon his form is in a good spot for this stage of the season.

Many of the newbies impressed me. Mike McCarthy played like he was determined to make a mark, and he and Niall Ronan were to the forefront when it came to forcing Scottish turnovers. It was interesting that McCarthy was shifted to lock in the second half...that was a good sign for him and suggests Kidney wants his 4th lock to be versatile. If this is true, Donnacha Ryan deserves a shot at showing what he can do in the back row as he had a strong outing at 4, especially in the tackle.

Leo was super as skipper and staked a strong claim for a starting position. Maul control, lineout work, all excellent. I've seen nothing to change my probably-biased opinion that he should be number 2 in our pecking order behind O'Connell to start in New Zealand.

That the front row got on Wayne Barnes' wrong side early on doesn't bother me so much. Barring a spate of freak injuries, I can't see that threesome ever forming a scrum at the World Cup. It was great to see Flannery come on in the second half....perhaps not the best idea to make his first action a lineout throw though!

In the back three, I have to afford Rob Kearney similar leniency to that given to O'Leary for his return from injury. Still, he took the odd high ball, joined the odd line move well and although his instinct still seems to be to look for a kick, which wouldn't be advisable against Cooper & co, he still has time to get used to other options.

Another talking point seems to be the Murrayfield crowd for booing us during kicks. Well having been one of the Croke Park crowd who booed Dan Parks as he took an eternity to slot over the winning penalty to deny us a Triple Crown in 2010, it didn't bother me that much. 

But like I said, losing to Scotland without scoring a try did bother me, and hopefully we'll be able to put a pin in that and bring it back on them in spades when we welcome them to the Aviva Stadium for the first time on March 10.

Meanwhile, our preparation bandwagon moves on to Bordeaux where we have an excellent chance to take the French on their own soil as it will be their first outing. Hopefully, Declan Kidney will not let the same centre pairing see the light of day again, though I wouldn't grumble if one of them switched jerseys and still started – can you guess which one? JLP
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