As much as the day itself was exceptional, I have to say I’d have happily put up with Lansdowne Road if it meant we walked out of there with a win and the remaining possibility of a Grand Slam.
Try as they might, the players weren’t quite able to divorce themselves from the occasion. And that’s natural. I’m not the most emotional of sorts really (ask my wife!), but there was definitely a lump in the throat as Amhran na bhFiann and Ireland’s Call were being belted out. I was on quasi-babysitting duty and I reckon my two nephews weren’t entirely sure what was wrong with their uncle.
One of the side effects of the greater capacity was that the corporate sector (against which I hold no grudge and whose ranks I would gladly swell given half the chance) was enlarged. As a consequence I had to deal with a couple of punters who were almost asking where the goalkeeper was. They didn’t reckon the atmosphere was great. Clearly they’d never been to Lansdowne.
The event was added to greatly by what seemed a doubling of the usual level of support for France. I seemed to have stepped into a Gallic Stadium as opposed to a Gaelic one. No matter. Les ‘types’ in front of me were sound and we had a good mutual grumble about the officiating.
That was only after I had recovered my composure, as Ireland did. The first quarter was as frustrating a performance as we have seen since, well, the last time we played France, which was the most frustrating since the last time we played them in the World Cup. Where France are concerned, I could go on.
And yet, not unlike the match last year when we nearly pulled off the most ridiculous comeback since the Hurling decider of 1994 (Offaly against Limerick – well, I presumed everyone was up to speed on the GAA after the last fortnight!), there is a sense that we leave the match confident enough in our ability to beat the French in the World Cup.
Given that we were within two minutes of doing it on Saturday despite giving the French a 10-point start and without two of our lynchpins, the players will realise that, although the Grand Slam is not to be, the result doesn’t necessarily damage our prospects for September. One wonders what the watching Argentinians made of it.
Once again, although there may have been mitigating circumstances this time around, Ireland started a game on the back foot. Whereas we have been strong enough normally to overcome this tendency, on this occasion it proved too much to handle – just.
Unusually our defence was quite poor throughout. From the early uncertainty in midfield to the two tries, both of which involved the defender (Murphy and Neil Best) not realising that he needed to hit in rather than consider their outside. Whereas the French were blitzing, we were soaking. It worked very well for France until half-time, when Ireland were able to adapt.
Another factor, and a continuation from the Wales game, was that the standard of kicking from Ireland was poor. We were regularly outmanoeuvred in this area of the game, and again, O’Gara was unusually fallible in this area.
It has been little remarked upon in the press that I have read how similar the game was to the Welsh one (first two minutes and last two minutes excepted). We had seen a first half of ropey lineouts and poor kicking away of possession followed by an emphasis on keeping ball in hand in the second half to Ireland’s considerable benefit, resulting in Ireland putting itself into a winning position.
And there’s the rub. It seems clear to this viewer that this Irish team is at its best when keeping ball in hand and running at the opposition.
In recent years Ireland has been adept at winning lineout ball on its own terms and attacking the opposition. This opened up the option of going at teams up front generally. This is what we need to fix. The good news is that the component parts are there and it should be fixable.
The knee-jerk reaction is to reunite Jerry Flannery with his Munster compadres. However, an analysis of the video from Sunday would show that Rory Best’s throwing was generally good. While we only surrendered one ball through the game, the problem was that quite a bit of the ball won was uncontrolled and slapped back. The real problem seems to be that opposing lineouts are figuring out the Irish operation and getting a jumper up to contest, putting the Irish jumper under pressure.
How fixable is this? Well, with Niall O’Donovan on board, one would have to say that we have a very smart operator and the requisite player talent to devise and implement changes to the system.
The other good news is that the much-maligned and openly targeted Irish scrum has stood up very well in the two games to date. True, there have been a couple of scrums where the concentration has been poor and Denis Leamy has had to make the odd silk purse, but we have been able to garner better quality of possession off this facet than normal. This has been a genuine area of weakness in the Irish game in recent years. This isn’t to denigrate Messrs Hayes and Horan because their overall contributions have been excellent and, in truth, the importance of the scrum has waned.
Finally, our kicking game has generally been one the good side of sound over the past few years. It’s difficult to imagine this area continuing to provide problems.
So while the mood leaving the ground was one of massive disappointment, there is still a lot to be positive about. I had to put it in context for my two grief-stricken nephews. They weren’t at the 1991 World Cup Quarter-Final against Australia.