Cutting edge is lacking
Defeat to France laid bare an inability in Irish attack to unlock the best defences
THIS Irish performance may not have been as perplexing as some have suggested but no one can deny that confidence has been dented one week or so out from a trip to New Zealand.
Do Ireland have the experience and capability to play to their potential upon arrival on the big stage? Of course they do. Make no mistake it will be a long time before a squad of such talent and experience travels again to a World Cup. Amidst the attention that will inevitably be paid to team selections over the coming days, I will attempt to explain the demise of a performance that promised so much at the outset of this much anticipated clash.
The start of the game demonstrated the ability of our players to string the phases together and play at an intensity that the French struggled to cope with in the early stages. Whilst the French retreated in defence, it was clear they were never in panic mode, even throughout Ireland’s better moments. Cian Healy deservedly got Ireland ahead after an early penalty. But considering the early pressure from Ireland, France easily got back into the game due to the ease at which they were able to defend against us and also their immense physicality in close quarters.
Psychologically, I feel that our players knew that they were struggling to penetrate a wellorganised defence as the game progressed. The lack of physicality was evident on the day and played a huge part in our defeat. However, I believe that part of the problem will be rectified quickly. The lack of cutting edge overall, and the absence of running angles and deception in midfield and out wide will be the biggest worry. From what I see, Ireland’s plan is to punch holes with the forwards in close and up the middle and then utilise the width with the backs.
The width of our game at first looks impressive, but it’s all too lateral and too easily defended. One senses the lads are relishing playing this style of game but are not being fully armed with all the tools required to break down the best defences. Here lies the crux of the problem and I cannot help but feel that at least some of the players realise it. Tomás O'Leary will be one of the scapegoats for this match. His poor clearance from a turnover by Heaslip was a momentum changer. It gave the French all the incentive they needed to get back into the match. Ireland’s reaction was indicative of their mindset behind the first 20 minutes. The plan looked more hopeful and adventurous rather than visionary and armoured with a strategy of real purpose.
It undermined our players to the extent that all the fizz and juice went out of the rest of the performance. Individual errors became all the more apparent and exposed as the French began to get on top. Some players compounded their own mistakes, which demonstrates the brittle confidence of some who will no doubt travel to New Zealand. Kidney, in his selection, has to weigh up how much he buys into the idea that any team is only as strong as its weakest link. Whatever team takes to the pitch in any sport, success is determined by the unbreakable confidence and trust between one player and another. If certain players are compounding mistakes it has a detrimental effect on how a team performs regardless of any opinions to the contrary.
Ireland play England next week in their last warm-up match. It’s vital that something tangible is taken from the game. Expect a physical contest which the English will now relish after watching Saturday’s Irish performance. I do not expect them to be as naïve as they were on their last trip to the Aviva. For Ireland, the players have to pull together and come up with a few more ideas that will unlock the best defences. At the moment we are being too comfortably defended and it’s undermining our efforts when we are without the ball. The set-piece has improved, but does not count for much unless we are doing more damage in open play.
It’s not true to say that only France can run lines or score a try of the quality of Cedric Heymans. If we buy into that mindset then we are already beaten.
The bar has been raised from a superb French defensive performance. Ireland’s fate will be determined by our ability to do likewise in attack.