The city of Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island was named after a Scottish naval commander, so in some ways it’s fitting that Ireland’s long 2011/12 season ends there, given it began way back on August 6 in Murrayfield as they prepared for this season’s first visit to The Land of the Long White Cloud.
After a first test that suggested it was going to be a long disappointing stay for Declan Kidney’s men, they managed to dig deep last week and find a display that may have fallen cruelly short on the scoreboard but still gave the fans back home something to be proud of at a time when pride was something in short supply in Irish sport.
And with two more Grand Slam heroes’ names added to the casualty list, they must go out one last time and try to show that this is a squad that has more than one impressive performance in it for every series of international matches. Can D’Arcy and Heaslip be replaced?
One name that has oft been debated among Irish rugby fans has been that of Paddy Wallace. From conceding the penalty that nearly cost us the Grand Slam to a defensive lapse that helped let in the winning Scottish try in that opening test of this season, there have been many calls for his time at Ireland’s top test table to be brought to an end.
But it can’t be denied that despite some injury problems he has been in the form of his life for Ulster and played no small role in their most successful season in over a decade, and many felt he was unlucky not to be brought on this tour in the first place.
So he now has his chance as he starts in the 12 jumper at the Waikato Stadium, despite the fact that Keith Earls, Jonathan Sexton and even Brian O’Driscoll have all occupied the inside centre channel so far in this series…not to mention Fergus McFadden who has had a few runouts in the role at Leinster.
And it is this sequence of changes by Kidney that has me wondering if it’s a ploy designed to take the All Blacks out of their comfort zone of preparation, and if so, is it a stroke of genius given it almost got us our first ever test victory?
Elsewhere in the back line I’m fully aware that I must eat some humble pie for my suggestion last week that Conor Murray shouldn’t start, seeing how he got our one and only try at Christchurch. There’s no doubt he was able to do a lot more of what he does best…strong tackling and nippy bursts around the fringes and the team surely benefited as a result.
I still would like to see the Reddan/Sexton or even Marshall/Sexton axis being tried out because I believe that with quicker ball we have the ability to score multiple tries as opposed to the just one which means we need to rely on our defence or indeed the referee’s interpretation of the laws of the scrum and breakdown. Nigel Owens faced criticism for this by several quarters last week and I’m not sure Romain Poite will fare much better this time round!
In the pack, while Wallace literally went from his holidays straight into the starting line-up, his Ulster team-mate Chris Henry may feel hard done by that he was over-looked for the Number 8 berth as it was decided that Peter O’Mahony should replace Heaslip. It was in the back row that Ireland made its most telling impression on the All Blacks; I’m not sure neither Adam Thompson nor Richie McCaw will face a tougher battle all season.
With Sean O’Brien still in the line-up, I expect there to be just as much ferocity at the breakdown from the men in green and with McCaw having moved over to Number 8 himself, it will be interesting to see how the home side respond.
In our second row, I believe both Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan have acquitted themselves very well in this series and deserve a special mention. Given that the focus of Irish rugby these days seems to be having multiple quality players at every position, they have shown in this series that the second row seems to be one area where we are well served.
And now it’s time to put my head on the block for the last time this season. Sadly, as it has been such a long campaign, I feel we may have left all our chances to claim a maiden victory over the World Champions back in Christchurch. They will be extra motivated to make it a whitewash series and I’m not so sure we can put in another display without the ball like that again.
Still, though the bookies have shortened their point spread from last week, I still think we’ll beat it and will come to within two converted tries of our opposition which given all that has happened will be no disgrace by any means.
Elsewhere in the June tours, the Scots should remain the Six Nations’ only unbeaten team by overcoming Samoa…an ironic feat given they took the wooden spoon in the spring. I expect France to regroup and take the second test with Argentina and Italy will defeat the USA by a decent margin. But in the other tests against the old “Tri-Nations”, I feel there are more whitewashes on the horizon for both Wales and England though it should be another close one between Warren Gatland’s men and the Wallabies.
That’s it for me this season on SportsNews Ireland…I have thoroughly enjoyed previewing Irish rugby for you here, and look forward to coming back in August to look ahead to what should be another enthralling season, with a Lions tour on the horizon to add some spice as if it needed it!
Enjoy your rugby this weekend and indeed all summer long wherever you are and thanks again for reading. JLP
You’ll find my blog at www.harpinonrugby.net