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Alive and Kicking

Alive and Kicking

No, not the Simple Minds 80s anthem, but Adrian O’Farrell’s take on where Ireland are and what they need to do!

It’s hard not to be just a little dismayed at Ireland’s underwhelming opening performance in the Rugby World Cup. For all that we might tell ourselves that this wasn’t the big one and is still effectively part of the preparation for the French and Argentinian matches, this result may well come back to haunt us.

If Ireland, Argentina and France finish up tied on points after the pool stage (not that unlikely a turn of events given how little there apparently is to choose between them), then the next criterion is the result of matches between the tied teams. With one win and one defeat each, however, we would need to move onto the next criterion, being points difference. However, this is not restricted to the matches involving the three tied teams but all pool matches. At which point the chicken that has been the Namibia match may well come home to roost.

The glimmer of hope here is that the weight of expectation that Irish teams have historically suffered under has all but disappeared. However, there is a touch of straw-clutching involved in that thought. This, after all, is the Irish team that has demanded to be talked up, not down, on the basis that they need to be capable of handling that pressure.

Watching the Argentina v France opener was a delicious exercise in mental contortion.

Argentinean rugby-players will always be partly defined for me by that group of fly-by-the-seat-of your-pants (oops!) amateurs that were the subject of the film ‘Alive’. This impossibly good-looking, jaunty, highly-educated group of university students captured the casual comfort in their own skin (oops again!) that the present day Pumas seem to embody. Or am I just extrapolating from Felipe? (Editor’s Note: Yes we know the team in “Alive” were Uruguyan but we didn’t want to ruin Adrian’s allusion)

The true story depicted in the film, however, demonstrated that they had a resilience that belied their relatively cosseted upbringing. On Friday, the Pumas demonstrated a massive resilience themselves, particularly during that siege period on their own line. Every fifty-fifty ball throughout the game was being taken by an Argentinian, every ball on the deck being descended upon with alacrity. Their eyes, everything about them from the kick-off said that every nerve and sinew was alive.

If they were alive, they were also kicking. Juan Hernandez is nobody’s idea of an international quality outhalf, for all that he is a quality rugby player. However, he did stick to the plan. Which was to kick to that other curious selection Cedric Heymans at fullback. If ever a gameplan worked to a tee this was it. Many of the kicks were poor, but not as poor as Cedric.

If we can manage to discount the awful possibility that this Irish team peaked in the first quarter of 2007 for long enough to consider what the implications of the Argentina v France match are for the jousts to come, then it’s not all bad. True, we face a massive backlash from France. However, if we can survive the opening twenty minutes against a pumped-up team and crowd, then the mental scars from last Friday may serve to undermine the French cause. If we can get the first score and quieten the crowd then …

Yes, it’s true that Ireland has lost their last five matches to France, including the last World Cup. Yes, Paddy Power are quoting France at 4-1 on to beat Ireland. Yes, it’s true that they cannot possibly play as badly again. However, it is my belief that this Irish team would have come off the pitch after the last two defeats to France and said to themselves ‘If we were playing this team again next week, we’d take them’.

In the cold light of day (which the Namibia match admittedly might make it hard to find), Ireland will realise that France v Argentina was a pretty dreadful game of rugby. The thing that saved it was the sheer passion of the Argentinians and the compelling nature of the drama. However, the entire edifice was riddled with error. France seemed incapable of maintaining possession and looked bereft of ideas in the backline, as they have done for some time. They have made capital over the past two years out of their excellent defence. Bernard Laporte could hardly get it so wrong again, one would think. Alternatively, if he can get it so wrong once he can do it again.

For their part, Argentina’s scrum and lineout were wobbly, offering grounds for optimism there. While Argentina played a particular game suited to how they believed they could beat France, they are unlikely to just put air on it again against Ireland because they know that Dempsey is a far safer pair of hands at the tiller. Yet they have never appeared capable of forging a passable backline that looks like, well, a backline. Ultimately they will try to get Ireland into a crocodile roll up front and just strangle the game, and us, to death.

Watching Eddie O’Sullivan being interviewed was reassuring. Expect Ireland to establish their platform before looking to do damage behind in the outing against Georgia.

The key for Ireland now is the pack. Worries abound, but this is still a pack that has shown an uncanny ability not to get ripped apart on the big day. They will need to stand firm against the wave that comes at them in the first twenty minutes against both France and Argentina and protect Peter Stringer (key to Argentina’s win was that every time Mignoni laid hands on the ball he had hands laid on him).

Even as I write this comes the realisation that that won’t do it. The pack needs to be told not just to withstand the pressure, but to become the aggressor and take the game to both France and Argentina (Editor: And Georgia!). Their role is no longer providing the backline with sufficient ball. Now they must win the game up front. Also expect O’Gara to put the ball in front of them more and only look to cut loose in the last twenty or so. Or as Jim Kerr (Editor: I just knew he would get Simple Minds in somewhere) might have put it , we need to be Alive and Kicking.