herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Boost for battered front line

Encouraging news on Healy and Fitzpatrick lifts Irish for Kiwi rerun

THERE is only one man in the Ireland camp more relieved this morning than coach Declan Kidney.

Hooker Rory Best was faced with the possibility of going into the second test against New Zealand with two unproven international starters in Connacht's Brett Wilkinson, 28, and Ronan Loughney, 27, either side of him and two emergency options, in Ulster's Paddy McAllister and Sale's Tony Buckley, possibly on their way to New Zealand.

This disaster scenario has receded somewhat with the news that Cian Healy (shoulder) and Declan Fitzpatrick (gluteal muscle strain), suddenly a central cog in the spluttering machine, could both recover for the second test against New Zealand in Christchurch on Saturday.

As the Irish contemplated a full-on front row meltdown, the spectre of trying to combat the All Blacks without their world-class number one and both tight-heads Fitzpatrick and Mike Ross did not bare contemplation.



Rethink

It simply brought into view an appalling vista. Worryingly, Kidney will have to rethink his centre combination. Keith Earls will miss out with a pectoral muscle injury.

Connacht captain Gavin Duffy has been called into the squad. It is one thing to take an unmerciful 42-10 beating when you don't perform.

It is quite another to take one when you have played better than at most times during the Six Nations.

That was the fate of Ireland at Eden Park. Sure, they can improve on what they did there. More certainly, they won't be able to make a 32-point transformation.

Of course, the All Blacks operate at a different level. For those who ridiculously claim that Leinster are the best passing team in rugby, please review this match.

The accuracy of the pass is the basis for good back play, the depth and pace onto the ball takes standards to a heavenly level. This is what Ireland had to deal with all night in Auckland.

It was little wonder Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll, who managed to subdue Sonny Bill Williams, compared the experience to "chasing shadows".

"In fairness to them, they played with a very fast tempo and we didn't slow their ruck ball down enough. When they're playing that way, they're difficult to defend against," said O'Driscoll.

"You don't break any decent defensive line down after two or three phases. You've got to go through multiples, you know, eight, nine, ten phases before you get five pointers, you get line breaks."



Cracks

The warrior spirit inside of O'Driscoll will never give way. His assessment was unsurprising: "A huge amount to work on. But, we've got two more chances, two more cracks at it."

Ireland could actually be forced into selecting two props, in Wilkinson and Loughney, that have been exposed in the PRO12 League and the Heineken Cup this season. And they are deemed to be the cavalry. General Custer had better options at 'Little Bighorn'.

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