Tuesday 26 March 2013

Annoyingly Inconsistent

If you were to sum up Declan Kidney's reign as Ireland coach in two words, they are the two I would choose. I started to write this piece directly after the Scotland game. One question kept coming into my mind. Are Ireland as good as I think they are? Their winning percentage under Kidney would suggest not. Neither does their World Ranking.

So what's going wrong? Here are a number of points that Ireland need to become competitive again.

1. Inconsistency

Specifically, backing up a good performance, with another good performance.

Every series of matches include a terrible performance, a game against a higher ranked team where we perform but don't win, and a morale-boosting and usually backs to the wall comprehensive victory. There might be a scrape through victory against a poorer team thrown in for good measure.

Is this good enough for one of the most talented group of players ever to play for Ireland at once? We have had the remains of the "Golden Generation" in Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell, the next almost equally golden generation in Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney, play for us in the last 4 years, and the results haven't changed.

As a nation we have come to expect more. Too often we go from joyous elation to end of the world despair in the space of a week with this team. Only 2009 wasn't like that in Kidney's reign;

See more about this here.

2. Efficiency

For too long I have watched Irish teams work extremely hard to put points on the board, only for a mistake to let the opposition level with ease.

The Scotland game was the perfect example of this. All of the possession and all of the territory could not be transformed into points. We had line-break after line-break, but for whatever reason, we kept making vital mistakes and the points went a begging.

The turning point in this match is also an example of how easy it is to score points against us. Paddy Jackson misses a kick to touch in the second half; and with one kick and chase later from Scotland and they have a shot at goal, and 3 points in the bag. This is without the territory, possession and exertion that Ireland used to garner their points.

Ireland need to become harder to beat, which means not only hard to score tries against, which they've done successfully but fix their growing discipline problem, which means that teams can keep in touch with them easily by knocking over simple 3 pointers. They need to learn how to punish mistakes, and take their try scoring opportunities when they come, and to keep the scoreboard ticking over when they don't.

3.. Playing for the full 80 minutes

This is becoming more and more of a problem. As a direct response to not being able to start games well, Ireland have gone out recently and left everything on the pitch. In the first half.

Which leaves them open to running out of steam and the opposition pulling away from them in the second half.

Does this mean that the players aren't fit enough? The common thought was that Italy couldn't play for 80 minutes when they first arrived into the 6 Nations as they weren't used to the demands and not fit enough. But they lasted the pace significantly better than we did in the finale.

4. Have Plan B and use it when necessary

Or Plan C. Because it seems that when things are going wrong Ireland's plan becomes "Revert to Plan A".

Ireland need to be adaptable and have numerous game plans for different situations. Sense needs to be used, and heads up rugby played, so that tactics can be changed mid game to exploit weaknesses that appear mid game, or to avoid repeating things that clearly aren't working.

For example, Ireland created 3 midfield line breaks in the first 15 minutes against Scotland. After these linebreaks, not one player was sent down the middle to exploit an obvious weakness in the Scottish defense.

5.. Injuries

Ireland saw an unprecedented amount of injuries this 6 Nations, with the unavailable XV arguably better than  any that played towards the end of the 6 Nations;

Fitzgerald, Bowe, Earls, D'Arcy. Zebo, Sexton, Reddan, Court, Strauss, Fitzpatrick, O'Connell, Tuohy, Henderson, Henry, Ferris.

Is it any coincidence that all of these injuries happened at once, when the English, Welsh and Scottish seemed relatively unscathed?

Is the player welfare policy not working? I've seen a lot of theories banded around since, mostly concerning the natural size of Irish people in comparison to the rest of the world. We have a small team therefore we need to overdo it in the gym to gain parity. The prime example of this is Stephen Ferris, who seems to be made of glass.

6. Using the bench

There are two problems here, first selection of the bench, second using the bench.

A bench is there for two reasons; 1. covering injuries and 2. to make an impact. Ireland have the players in reserve to make impacts and change the game, but don't choose them, preferring instead to choose a bench to solely cover injuries. Which leads to Kidney not using his bench

Kidney has never been as bad as he was this 6 Nations at using the bench. He seems to have developed some serious trust issues that have emanated in him not trusting young talent or using his bench effectively.

I am firmly of the belief that a number of the bench players used against France would not have come on were it not for injuries. Ian Madigan definitely would not have come on if Luke Marshall and Brian O'Driscoll hadn't gotten concussed in the 72nd minute.

Having O'Gara on the bench against Scotland made no sense to me. At 35, and with a style of play so similar to Jackson's how was he going to come on and change the game? Either what Jackson was doing was wrong and Ronan would ride in to save the day by doing the same thing, or Jackson would be playing well and deserve to stay on. If he was doing well, he deserves to earn the experience of seeing out a game at this level.

Bench players need to offer something different to the players they replace, much like the Boss/ Reddan combination at Leinster, or the van der Merwe/ Healy combination. Boss brings the physicality around the rucks that Leinster need, while Reddan brings pace and tempo to the Leinster backline. This system actually gets the best out of both players. Why can't it work at an international level?

7. Introducing Young Players

One good thing that the injuries did for Ireland in the long term was to force Kidney to blood talent in the form of Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall.

Kidney has gone from having the confidence to through in youngsters into the deep end, to not selecting them as they are untried at this level. But how are they going to get the experience without playing?

Players like Ian Madigan and Luke Marshall were ready to be challenged at a higher level, and only got the call up due to injuries. But there are others like Tommy O'Donnell who has had a great season, and is still uncapped.

In conclusion, are Ireland as good as I think they are? The answer is very frustrating and annoying. They are irritatingly inconsistent, leading me to say no. Performances like the World Cup game against Australia, the second test against New Zealand, the destruction's of Argentina, England and Wales lead us to think that Ireland are world beaters. A look at the world rankings suggests anyone from 2-10 can beat each other on their day. Which seems to be reflected in Ireland's results over the last number of years, where only New Zealand beat us by any big score. Meaning that luck or chances could see Ireland as "nearly" unbeaten in the same period if everything had gone for us.

Perhaps this is why they are so frustrating to follow. Ireland needs more consistency. We need to stop giving away stupid penalties. We need to stop getting carried away with victories, and stop getting so depressed about losses. We need to start playing for 80 minutes.

We have the players, we have the technical coaches in place and we have the talent coming through. We just need a bit more thought from everyone involved, and a little more cohesion. That process starts now.

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