Am I the only one seeing a pattern in Declan Kidney's record as Ireland coach?
He won the Grand Slam at his first attempt, then for the following 3 campaigns couldn't win more than 3 out of 5. He won his pool at the World Cup including a famous win over Australia then horribly failed against Wales. And yesterday he out-schemed the French on their own turf in the first half but then let them claw their way back to a draw.
In my writeup of Leinster's win over Aironi this weekend I had a pop at a couple of Irish dailies for being overly negative about the performance. It could be said I'm being hypocritical by going all glass-half-empty myself over Kidney when his team gets a better result in Paris than any other has done for over a decade.
Then again...Ireland aren't exactly on a twenty-game winning streak, are we? Anything but.
But hey, I'm happy to start with the positive, and like I say, the bulk of it was in the first half. All the pre-match analysis was focused on a need for Ireland to make a statement by doing something far different to that which they showed against the Welsh, and that's exactly what they did.
As we all know, Paris is the city of romance, and when you go there you're pretty much expected do at least a bit of flirting, so luckily for us our players chose to do it with the offside line rather than the pretty mademoiselles.
That's not to say we were “cheating” per se, but we imposed ourselves from the word go and once we got away with it the first time, the referee couldn't exactly start pinging us afterwards (at least in the first half - I'm pretty sure someone from the French camp had a word in Pearson's ear at halftime).
But it wasn't just a case of playing a high line. Once a French ball-carrier was hit, he still had to be dealt with, and we were going with our trademark choke tackle. A risky move sure, but again, it was an occasion for taking calculated risks. I counted four times in the first half where the French had possession going into a tackle and we had it coming out thanks to the upper body strength of the likes of Sexton, Ferris and D'Arcy.
While I mention our starting out-half, I must also mention his opening place-kick which was an absolute howler. I went on a bit of a gush-fest about him last week, deserved though it was, but I know he won't be happy with that crucial first effort, and the fact he made his next three together with Parra missing two himself won't be much consolation.
One thing is for sure, though...that Sexton miss did not cost us victory.
It wasn't so much that we didn't have an offensive gameplan. Our problem, the way I saw it anyway, was that our defensive gameplan WAS our offensive gameplan to all extents and purposes.
Everyone talks about Brian O'Driscoll's famous Parisian hat-trick in 2000. And ironically it was two more 13s who helped Tommy Bowe come close to replicating it. First up his intercept of a blind Rougerie pass had to be the result of work in the DVD room, and bravo to all involved. For his second try, though he had a lot of work to do with the space he had, it wouldn't have been there for him at all without a super quick offload from Keith Earls.
Neither score, however, seemed to be the result of a pre-determined set of offensive plays designed to create space – and such a set was never to come. Here is where I ask a question...given we had no dedicated backs coach, is there a rule against an existing player helping out with the coaching brains trust? Say, for example, someone who would have had the captain's role but for an injury?
Anyway...thanks to our devilish tackling, all the home side could muster in reply for the first period was a few penalties, only two of which Parra saw over the bar. A 17-6 halftime lead was as deserved as it would have been surprising if you somehow knew of it before kickoff.
So it's half-time, and there Declan Kidney was again, in that Bermuda Triangle of a time-period. When once it was a year between winning a Grand Slam and retaining it, another time it was a week between reaching the World Cup quarterfinals and playing in them, this time it was for just about ten minutes in a Stade de France dressing room.
One thing was for sure, the French weren't done scoring for the day – they were certainly going to come back somehow. I would have thought we needed a mindset whereby we would get our side of the scoreboard moving every chance we had. Is that how things transpired?
Well, here's where I talk about the ref. I HATE blaming the man in the middle for a bad result, I think it's an extremely lazy analysis and comes with the assumption that your team was doing everything perfectly themselves.
Still...as I suggested earlier, it really did seem as though Dave Pearson was favouring the home side in 50/50 calls. The most blatant example of this was two knock-ons, one he called against us, one he didn't call for us.
The ball did indeed tip Paul O'Connell's hand as he reached for an overthrown Rory Best dart soon after the break, but did it go forward as it landed? I'm not so sure, yet Pearson called it, and rather than escape their own half, Ireland remained pegged back inside it until France got the crucial first score of the second period.
Then came the French try, and here is where we must metnion Rob Kearney. Yet another herculean effort from him overall, and apologies to all Tommy Bowe fans (my daughter included!) but our full-back should have been man of the match. Maybe he didn't get involved in Irish scores, but were he not so solid under the high ball there certainly would have been more French ones.
Sure, his kick from deep went a little further than it should've done. But did that bring about the try? No. Though Poitrenaud brought it back into our half, our defence was still doing all that it had done prior to then and eventually Conor Murray tackled Parra and forced the ball out of his hands.
Here's my question for Mr Pearson...when the ball dropped from Parra's hands, did it go any less forward than the one that dropped after O'Connell had tipped it earlier on?
After that non-call, it took a lucky bounce and a quick offload from Trinh-Duc (his second and last significant contribution on the day) to Wesley Fofana who it has to be said took his chance well however fortunately it came about.
Parra may have missed the conversion, but the ref was to give him a chance to make up for it. As on many occasions at the second half breakdown, Irish fans could argue that it was like he was looking for reasons to penalise us. I'm not so sure that was actually the case but he did seem quick to award the chance in front that brought the scores level again for the first time since kickoff.
So now the clock was ticking towards the 60-minute mark. By fair means or foul, the lead was gone, but the match was still there to be won. What happens next?
Well first there was the unfortunate injury to Conor Murray. He still wasn't quite at the top of his game but given the defensive set-up we were adopting he was probably the right choice to start. Hopefully he will recover quickly as Michael Corcoran's tweet suggests but I'd bet any money that Eoin Reddan was in the frame to come on at virtually that very moment anyway.
And around the 61-minute mark, after Rory Best pinched a ball in a manner even the watching Nicolas Sarkozy couldn't have deemed illegal, a spot of garryowen tennis led to Kearney going on one of his surges from one 22 to the other, and hey presto, we're on the front foot much like we were in the second half against Italy.
But here's the thing - this wasn't Italy we were playing. So why we went on to play the same offence I'll never know.
First of all, Sexton brilliantly drops his shoulder and charges deep into the French 22. But the home defence is solid and a few phases develop.
Meanwhile, back in Dublin, an Irish fan with a tendency to harp on rugby is frightening the life out of his in-laws by shouting “DROP GOAL!!!” at the telly. “They can't hear you,” came a reply from one of them.
Drop goals should always be in a rugby team's playbook. And I totally get why French teams are as willing to go for them in the first minute of the match as they are the last. Not only does it get you on the board, but once your players are more used to doing it, it will come more easily to them in those “squeaky-bum” situations late in a tight game.
Now the first time I think Sexton DID briefly drop into the pocket, but Reddan seemed to usher him into a three-man passing line towards touch. The ball went there, the French defence intervened, the ball went into touch, luckily for us off a blue jumper.
Let's put a pin in the drop-goal thing for a moment. Here Ireland has an attacking lineout deep in the French 22 with the scores level. Whatever we plan to do with the ball, we must first secure it. We've failed at both short and long throws already, but with the rain teeming down, it made absolutely no sense to throw it long. Yet we did, and thus lost possession.
Still, Trinh-Duc nervously hit it into touch, and this time we saw sense and won our lineout, albeit much further out. Few more surges and phases, and we're back into 22, and now I have finally reached the point of my screengrab which leads off this post. Keith Earls has gotten us this far.
I can't see it any other way. You take the blinkin' drop goal here. OK – maybe the world's best exponent of eleventh-hour heroics was still on the bench at this point, but from this position under the posts, any outhalf should at least bloody well try it. The mindset of the international team should be geared around going into drop goal mode in those situations.
But no, we go back to the phases. And yes, Gordon D'Arcy screwed up a pass, but given the conditions, the more phases we went through the more it was likely something like that was going to happen. I don't blame our inside centre, in fact defensively I thought our 12 & 13 did extremely well together on the day, I blame the overall offensive mindset of the Irish squad, like when Jamie Heaslip risked Earls along the sideline when clearly it wasn't on (see 2nd screengrab above).
And look what happened next..the French marched down the field but once more couldn't get past our defensive barrier and whether it was excellent Irish discipline or sudden blindness from Pearson we'll never know. The point is, had we a 3-point lead, chances are we would've held it.
At least they took a couple of bites at the winning-drop-goal cherry, but thanks to the efforts of the likes of Stephen Ferris, another powerhouse on the day by the way(his defensive display plus ripped jersey reminded me of Richard Dunne for the Irish soccer team in Moscow), we kept them out.
I was glad to hear Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe and even Kidney himself express disappointment afterwards. I felt it too, though I was trying to convince myself, as were many Irish fans on twitter, that I “would've taken the draw beforehand”.
Now that the dust has settled, however, I think we should stop wasting time arguing over the Ireland coach's team selections and start evaluating his legacy. He's not going to change what he does – that's the way he is.
And without hindsight, I doubt many would go back to 2008 and not replace Eddie O'Sullivan with Declan Kidney. But it's 2012 now, with Scotland, England and a trio of Tests in New Zealand to come before the cycle begins again before the next Six Nations campaign.
I think we've all seen enough evidence that Kidney is capable of bringing this group of players only so far, and whatever about the time left on his contract, perhaps the time is getting near for him to step aside so we can all see what happens next. JLP
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IRELAND-36 WALES-0 (Women's Six Nations)