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Monday 18 December 2017

Another Croker choker as Crown is let slip

Occasion gets to Irish as last rugby match in GAA HQ ends in shock win for Scotland

It ended as it began! The dread of defeat filled the Irish players to the brim on a historical first day at Croke Park, in February 11th 2007, when France's Vincent Clerc turned the knife in Ireland as he has so often done.

The deflationary effect of losses to Wales and New Zealand were compensated for by the 2007 destruction of auld enemies England and the squeezing of world champions South Africa last November.

The world turned full circle on Saturday as hitherto winless Scotland finally delivered on their promise this season by delivering a knockout blow to Ireland's after-thought ambition, once the Grand Slam was removed by France, of a fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons.

Before France clung to their champions-elect status in the rain in Paris, with a decidedly edgy 12-10 win over England, coach Declan Kidney hinted at the difficulties Ireland will face in successive southern hemisphere test matches this summer in New Zealand (June 12) and Australia (June 26).

"The good thing about the competition is that any side can beat any other side on any given day. There are no repeat matches. There are no double-headers. Every match is a one-off chance," he said.

Obviously, this strength of the competition can be extrapolated as its weakness when it comes to tackling the southern hemisphere super-powers.

What chance would Scotland, England, Wales or Italy have in New Plymouth or Brisbane, where the tests will be played?

Certainly, Ireland will have to be at the peak of their powers to hold any logical chance of beating the All Blacks for the first time in our history.

To this end, they have clearly decided that the new rule at the breakdown is heavily weighted in favour of the attacking team. It is better to run with the ball than to tackle without it.

Of course, this meant a change in strategy and style, one not solely interpreted to deal with Scotland. There is a longer-term project in the pipeline -- the 2011 World Cup.

The balance had to be struck between winning and evolving, meaning Ireland chose to commit to a running game, keeping the ball away from Scotland by keeping it to themselves.

It could have worked out handsomely too as Ireland clearly had the beating of the Scottish backline in the first quarter, but for poor handling to lead to dropped balls and dropping confidence.

"We had got good fast ball. The easiest way to defend sometimes is by keeping it in hand. You have to trust the lads," said coach Declan Kidney, in defence of his players.

"You'll never improve as a side unless you actually try things. We weren't trying things just for the sake of trying things. We knew we had to go after Scotland.

"Scotland's performance didn't surprise me because I'd seen them against Wales when they were 10 points up with five minutes to go. There is a lot to be said for their resilience."

There was support for Ireland out-half Jonathan Sexton at a 50pc place-kicking return. The Leinster man had to suffer the indignity and unnecessary increased pressure of watching his replacement Ronan O'Gara rashly encroach on the pitch as Sexton waited to take his final kick of the game in the 51st minute.

"He is a young player. He is learning his way. He had a great break for a try. He had a kick under extraordinary circumstances at the end.

"The pressure was on him and he came up with it," insisted Kidney.

The two biggest losers on that day were undoubtedly Sexton and hooker Rory Best, who saw his strength as a thrower undermined by a fast-rising Scotland defensive lineout.

There was an Eddie O'Sullivan-esque feel to Kidney's reluctance to send in Connacht's Sean Cronin when Best was so obviously falling to pieces.

"Sometimes you have to hold your hand up and say it was a poor day. You take all the plaudits. Now, you have to take all the criticism. That is team sport.

"If you can't win your lineout, especially deep down towards their line, you're going to struggle, especially with the backline we have. It is just something I am going to have to take on the chin.

"We pride ourselves on our lineout. We fell well short of the standards we set. Whenever one or two start to go, it is very hard. Confidence slides and it is hard to get it back up."

It could be a personal example of the overall dipping of confidence of the Ireland squad at this snapshot in time.

It was a frustrating way to end four memorable years at Croke Park and Best refused to make excuses for failing to deliver under pressure.

"We wanted to finish off our time at Croke Park with a big result and big performance, winning a Triple Crown," said the Ulster hooker.

"We obviously fell short and we're very, very disappointed. Any time there's a match to be won, especially at home when there's silverware on the line, we want to win it.

"We want to win every game. Afterwards in the changing room there were 22 bitterly disappointed men."

The Heineken Cup and Magners League could lead to a renewal of faith.

"We pride ourselves on winning things and on performing when it counts," said Best.

Roll on the All Blacks and the Wallabies.

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