Things haven’t been going so well for Irish sports lately.
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With the big exception of Katie Taylor who is herself a World Champion, Irish teams have been finding themselves coming up against the best on the planet in recent weeks and ended up on the wrong end of a drubbing each time.
Just last night the Irish soccer team’s dreams were shattered in Gdansk and although Spain are the reigning World Cup holders, many felt the boys in green failed to match the standard of play, particularly in defence, that got them to the finals in the first place.
In many ways, the same could be said about Declan Kidney’s charges last weekend in Auckland, only in their case, the confusion stems from Leinster being able to dominate the continent’s most prestigious tournament for the past four years without that form being translated to the national set-up.
So while there is many a case for the argument that a combination of Ireland’s significant injury list and the All Blacks’ sheer awesomeness was always going to produce the result it did, I’m not altogether sure that we are doing everything we can to bring our provincial success to the Test arena.
And much as I hate to focus my criticism around one player, the Auckland experience has left me with no choice. Conor Murray has seen a meteoric rise to his country’s number one starting scrum-half, and there is no doubting his form for Munster in the 20010/11 season did much to earn him that place.
But I read one report from a leading journalist in the mainstream media during the week dismissing criticism of Murray on the basis that he “prevented a certain try from Sam Whitelock”. Now I know the game of rugby union is evolving in the professional era, but for me, a good tackle by a scrum-half is a bonus. If he can do that, fine…but the reason he wears that number 9 jumper is to kick-start the offence from rucks, mauls and scrums.
While I have no doubt that Murray has a future with the Test team, if we are ever to know if Leinster’s provincial success can be replicated, the same ingredients must be used, and looking through Leinster’s Heineken Cup run as it was orchestrated by Jonathan Sexton, more often than not it was Eoin Reddan who was there feeding him the ball.
Instead we had a situation last Saturday where Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip were leading the team in tackles and competing at the breakdown, only for Sexton to receive the ball a fraction later than he’s used to, and that fraction can be vital, especially when up against a team with the tackling prowess of rookie Julian Savea who not only helped himself to a début hat-trick but also completely stopped Rob Kearney in his tracks.
Yet for this Second Test in Christchurch while the lineup may actually be more “Leinster-heavy” than usual with the re-introduction of Mike Ross and Gordon D’Arcy to the starting XV, Murray remains at 9 so it’s hard to see how anything will realistically change in that department.
And in case you think I’m of the impression that Eoin Reddan is the only solution, I’d be just as happy seeing Ulster’s Paul Marshall being given a go in the starting lineup…if his debut was even half as good as the All Blacks’ Aaron Smith’s that would be a good thing!
It’s just with a more attack-minded halfback pairing Ireland could at least have some hope of generating on offence and not have to capitalise on New Zealand errors for scores, which was how we got our one and only try in Auckland.
Relying on solid defence with the hope of nicking the odd score down the other end is all well and good, but if it’s all you ever do, it’s makes it easy to be found out, as we were in Auckland and Trapattoni’s men were in Poland.
But it’s not all bad within the Irish camp. We feared a nightmare in the front row of Twickenham proportions but Declan Fitzpatrick acquitted himself so well I wonder if Tom Court will face a battle to regain his place. The lineouts too were generally a good source of ball and the addition of yet another Leinster player to the starting ranks, Kevin McLoughlin, can only improve this.
So with 160 minutes left alone with the World Champions still to come, maybe my expectations shouldn’t be quite as high as I had them last week when I predicted a two-point win for us. To be honest, I’ll be happy with a display that shows we can get our basics right and at least show some semblance that we’re trying to make something happen going forward.
Which brings me to my predictions. Back to reality on the Ireland front, or at least reality in that I’m pretty sure the All Blacks will win. But maybe it wouldn’t be so crazy to suggest we’ll get within three converted tries unlike the various bookies’ point spreads suggest?
In the other tests, Scotland should be too strong for Fiji while the hobbling arrival of Warren Gatland to the Welsh camp will be a big boost for them and they could well square their series with the Wallabies. I figure the Springboks will prove too strong for England yet again at Ellis Park. Italy to overcome Canada and finally I think the Argentinians might just upset the French who have just reached the end of a long season.
That’s it from me for this week, I’ll be back next Friday to bring my columns for this 2011/12 campaign to a close. Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP
You’ll find my blog at www.harpinonrugby.net