This blog is meant to serve as an archive as much as anything else. So before I begin my writeup of the match at Murrayfield on Sunday, I must first acknowledge the amazing achievement of the Irish Women's team in Lasswade on Saturday, securing their first-ever Triple Crown with a 30-3 win over Scotland. Many congrats to coach Philip Doyle, captain Fiona Coughlan and everyone involved...here's hoping their success leads to an even greater growth in both participation & coverage of the women's game on these shores.
“We've got to be honest. We need a big improvement.”
Given the final score, you'd be forgiven for thinking the above post-match quote was from Declan Kidney. Bizarrely, it was actually said by the victorious Scotland coach Scott Johnson.
When the Irish supremo was in front of the mic after the full-time whistle (when you get a much better sense of where they are than at the sanitized press conferences) this is what he had to say :
“Our possession was wasteful. We made the line breaks but we didn’t manage to finish them off unfortunately. We put ourselves in good positions several times, but unfortunately turned over the ball quite easily to them.”
And that's not the only time he mentioned the phrase “line breaks” in the interview. It really seems like he's saying : “Well the coaches did the work to have them prepared to break the line, it's just when they did, they failed.”
Even if that was the only reason Ireland lost yesterday, and I don't believe it was, it demonstrates a monumental disconnect between the head coach and his players, one that has been evident at the very least since the omnishambles that was the announcement of the transferral of the captaincy, but possibly before.
Ireland's 2013 Six Nations campaign is now over – right up to the final whistle in Murrayfield when we had a chance to pinch a victory, the title was still mathematically possible, but now that has gone so anything that happens against France or Italy really can't be considered in the post mortem of our tournament.
For me, the way we have performed overall can be compared to that Keith Earls line break on 24 minutes yesterday. Having burst through the Scottish defence, he got himself into a wonderful position, but there wasn't even a glance over his shoulder to see Brian O'Driscoll running a perfect support line. Similarly Ireland started incredibly against Wales, but from the half-time whistle in Cardiff to now, have contrived to play themselves out of contention.
Of course now I feel I have to make allowances for using the above example. Because you see, I'm a Leinster fan and I just criticized a Munster player. I'd like to take this opportunity to say how absolutely sick and tired I am of all the provincial bullshit we Irish fans put ourselves through when we're talking about the national team.
The fact that the provinces continue to play week in week out during the Six Nations certainly doesn't help, but when Ireland takes the field it's up to us to stand shoulder to shoulder in our green jerseys yet from pundits to journalists, tweeters to bloggers, we just don't seem capable of looking at the big picture. And yes, I know I have been guilty of it myself more than once over the years.
It has gotten so bad that whenever I hear about Conor O'Shea as a possible Ireland coach, I feel it would be an appointment that must somehow first get the “approval” of Munster & Ulster fans, whatever about his more immediate concerns like a Heineken Cup quarterfinal and Premiership title defence.
But when it comes to levelling criticism at Declan Kidney, I feel my record is clear enough for me to avoid accusations of any anti-Munster bias.
I was calling for his appointment during the 2008 Six Nations, when almost 5 years ago today, Ireland ironically hammered Scotland. I never saw Eddie O'Sullivan's Triple Crown achievements as enough for the squad of players he had. Kidney was on the way to his second Heineken Cup and seemed the natural replacement, and at his first crack, got the team the extra few yards for the Grand Slam.
And even though the 2010 & 2011 campaigns didn't exactly go ideally, I still defended him to the hilt. Wait until we play Australia, I said. That will be the defining moment of his tenure, I said. And sure enough the victory came, and we won our pool.
My mistake was in assuming that having prepared for that, the team would also be ready for the knockout stage. They weren't, and got hijacked by Wales.
Since then, the malaise has never gone away, and as it turns out, his tenure doesn't so much have a defining moment, more a defining pattern - whether you look at tournaments as a whole or individual matches, there have been wonderful starts followed by an inability to follow through to when the fat lady sings.
So when trying to pen a writeup summarizing the 80 minutes in Murrayfield on Sunday afternoon, I could focus on Paddy Jackson for dropping his first pass, missing some crucial placekicks, not making a relatively simple penalty touch when 8-0 up.
I could focus on Rory Best for allowing himself to be intimidated by Jim Hamilton’s hand-waving at the lineouts.
I could focus on Sean O'Brien for his utterly ridiculous penalty when clearly off his feet.
I could focus on Ronan O'Gara's crossfield kick in his own 22 which had pundits saying “you can see what he's trying to do” which certainly makes them better men than I.
I could focus on Jamie Heaslip's struggles with a position he wasn't ready for, not to mention the fact he seems to be a permanent resident in Wayne Barnes’ bad books – and we have that same ref again in Rome.
(Have I covered all the participating provinces there? Check.)
But each and every one of those players has performed out of their skins for their province in recent times; yes, even ROG. So when individuals come together and fail on so many fronts, the buck has to stop somewhere.
Of course I can't let this post go without highlighting the positives, because believe it or not, there were some. Two early breaks do not a perfect performance make, but still, Luke Marshall will be fine at 12. Paddy Jackson will be fine at 10 once the placekicking pressure is taken off of him, and there's no shame in that for a test out-half.
And again for the fear of provincial goggle-wearing accusations I feel the need to point out that Jamie Heaslip actually played quite well and DID show leadership with carries, quick taps and tackles, it's just that when awarded a penalty on 76m, the way BOD seized the ball and brought it to the mark himself showed us all where the armband should be right now. Besides...many of those who seem to be “tempering” the Kidney criticism by lambasting Heaslip's captaincy seem to forget who appointed him in the first place!
It should go without saying that Craig Gilroy’s try was well taken, though his reward was then to be taken off which was baffling no matter how good it was to see Luke Fitzgerald back at this level once again.
As for our defence, it has always been fine, even in the second half in Cardiff – without it, we would have lost, and the way Jackson & Marshall combined for a successful choke tackle yesterday showed that everyone is pretty much clued in on that side of things.
Those few positives still don't take from the fact that for the second game in a row, a team hardly playing world-beating rugby has needed only 12 points to beat us. And on both occasions, we started each half playing well but then lost our way.
One quick point about not kicking penalties for goal in the first half...I actually agree with the decision itself because if Ireland considered themselves still in the race for the championship, merely winning wasn't enough, we needed a decent margin. The only thing we weren't considering was the lineout failure, and blame for that doesn't merely fall on Best's darts...it took us four goes to realise a simple toss to the 2 jumper was the only way to ensure possession against a buoyed up opposition.
So clearly for all the x's and o's the coaching staff draws on the blackboard, the squad in general still needs a different type of preparation from the man at the top and looking at the whole squad experience instead of trying to add up the sum of its parts, it seems the lines of communication have been broken beyond repair.
Once more, we have a two-week wait until our next encounter. Once more, I am suggesting that the IRFU give us some clarification on the coach's future NOW.
The pressure is building and building with each passing moment – I say if you're going to give him a new contract, announce it now, otherwise make it clear that he will be stepping down when it ends. Then we will have clarity. Then the pressure will be released.
Instead, I fear the heads will remain in the sand, hoping a decent result or two to end the tournament will act as some kind of salvation. It won't in my eyes, and I really, really, want to make these international writeups about the rugby on the pitch again!
We're the ones who have got to be honest. We're the ones who need a big improvement. And we need a leadership that realises this, pronto. JLP
Also this weekend