©INPHO/James Crombie

Opinion: Ireland's fall down to more than just injuries and 'atrocious' Kidney

‘When even your strengths turn into weaknesses, it exposes your limitations in a very cruel way’, writes Emmet O’Rafferty.

WITH ITALY DOWN to 14 men and their captain in the bin, Ireland for the first time in the match put some pace on the ball, showed hunger and ambition.

But they stormed into the opposition 22, slowed down, ran out of ideas and came away with a paltry three points. We had neither the wit nor the courage to keep recycling, attacking the gain line, moving them from side to side until they ran out of defenders.

Saturday’s match exposed the weaknesses of Irish rugby in a way we have never witnessed before.

It emphasised that the problems go far deeper than Declan Kidney: his management of the team for the past 12 months has been atrocious, but what we saw on Saturday was on another level altogether.

When even your strengths turn into weaknesses, it exposes your limitations in a very cruel way, but one we have to face up to; Jamie Heaslip is a fine rugby player who is not being used for his strengths.

He has shown nothing this year or previously to suggest that he is captaincy material. His on field decision making is poor at the base of the scrum and at line-out time.  The Irish line-out has gradually disintegrated throughout this campaign. His failure to take points when he should have and his failure to impose himself on proceedings as captain is testament to all of this.

As a result we are not getting the best from a very talented player. His appointment showed poor judgement. It has been preceded and followed by other decisions regarding selection and tactics which have taken us to where we are.

O’Driscoll serves his time in the sin-bin. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

As if to emphasise the point, the man who should have been captain, our greatest ever player, was sent to the bin for an uncharacteristic show of frustration. What should have been a celebration of his career turned into a shambles. Whether he decides to call it quits or plays on I will always feel that his special talent deserved more than one Grand Slam.

In terms of the game itself for the first 20 minutes we couldn’t win a clean line-out. Our throwing was hopelessly inaccurate.

Were we making the right calls? Are we too predictable? The Italians had clearly worked us out and we had no variations. The thrower was now under even more pressure and this compounded the situation.

Our line-out wasn’t functioning and our scrums were just adequate. So why was Jamie Heaslip holding the ball at the back of the scrum instead of getting it away. We didn’t have any edge in the scrum. Ultimately his control and the feed to Murray became sloppy. We weren’t achieving anything other than slowing it down.

When we did have the ball during that early period Conor Murray, Luke  Marshall and Kearney all kicked it mindlessly away. When we did kick with purpose the chase was lacking  intent, appetite and the requisite skill.

Apart from that brief spell in the second half, we never created one situation where we could put pace or width on the ball. When we did and as we got close to the line we slowed it down and ran out of ideas.

‘A good player bursting to get out’

This obsession that some modern day scrum-halves have of not looking around until they reach the breakdown and then turning into traffic cops is really annoying. They should be looking around long before they get there so they can be quick and decisive when they do arrive.

I always get the feeling with Murray that there is a really good player bursting to get out. If it is to happen, he needs different influences to what he is currently experiencing.

The constant stream of injuries merely represents a team falling apart in just about every respect. I don’t know whether it’s the conditioning, the preparation or the lack of desire to be a part of this shambles. It’s probably a combination of all three.

In recent years we have got away with playing a game that has allowed us to stay close to those at the top but never really able to compete. A return of one Grand Slam in the last ten years is not good enough. We have to take a cold hard look at how we play the game.

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Irish rugby is too one dimensional. I can’t remember when I saw one of our forward ball carriers, O’Brien, O’Mahoney, Healy or Heaslip take and give a pass in broken play. They always charge as hard as they can into the opposition. That’s it! It is all too predictable.

Our decision making and distribution in broken play is not at a level where we are able to compete. Our problems in the scrum are well documented. Must we now add the line-out? For a one dimensional team who is so reliant on the set piece this is scary.

The jury is out on Paddy Jackson. He hasn’t been getting a lot of quick ball to work with but in his few outings he has done some good things. The one player who tried to make a difference when he came on was Ian Madigan. He picked his angles well and wasn’t accepting of the tackle.

Our players are talented but they are also products of the environment they work in. Rob Kearney is a good example. He has gone backwards since he hit the scene. He is too left sided and therefore predictable. Teams don’t kick to him any more so that takes care of that. His kicking out of hand is poor. Is this because he can’t kick? No. His passing is poor. Is that because he can’t pass? Yes.

If we are to compete at the top table we must develop our players in a way that teaches them the necessary skills. Somebody in Irish rugby needs to make a decision about how we are going to play the game if we are serious about competing.

Good players with bad habits are bad players. We have lots of talented players who haven’t developed enough good habits.

Trevor Brennan always comes to mind when I think about our attitude to our own. In Ireland he was considered a big, strong aggressive player with limited skill. Toulouse didn’t think so and were proved right when he played a brand of rugby for them that no one in Ireland thought possible of him.

Our attitude to coaching and player development needs to radically change. If you are ambitious for Irish rugby you must recognise that we are a nation of Trevor Brennans.

It firstly requires the vision and then the ability to implement. It’s all about leadership.

Emmet O’Rafferty is a former second row forward for Leinster and chairman of Top Security which operates a security business in Ireland and South Africa.

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