From GUBU to FUBAR
The Italian band’s funereal rendition of Ireland’s dirge, which elicited barely a mumble from the Irish fans, set the tone for a dire afternoon for Irish rugby. Injury and ineptitude in equal measure resulted in defeat to the Italians for the first time in the six nations and the real possibility of the wooden spoon. (I’ve checked, and it goes to the team in last place even if they have managed to avoid a whitewash.) It was little consolation when schhcottish winger, Timbo Visher, sealed the deal for France by ensuring that their winning margin was too slender to overhaul Ireland’s points difference.
Of course the injuries made a difference. In the aftermath of the French game, manager Mick Kearney described the situation as GUBU and he certainly had a point. The guts of a decent test side - Strauss, Fitzpatrick, POC, Henry, Reddan, Sexton, D’Arcy, Zebo and Bowe - all out, with Ryan barely able to train and the centre pairing recovering from concussion was certainly unprecedented and a quarter of the way into Saturday’s match the situation had deteriorated to FUBAR after Earls departed with a dislocated shoulder and Luke Marshall left the pitch with another concussion. As an aside, one has to question whether he was just unlucky – he certainly took a nasty bang – or whether the concussion protocols aren’t fit for purpose. In retrospect, the decision to play him looks more than a little reckless.
To compound matters, Luke Fitzgerald lasted just 11 minutes before he had to leave the field with a twisted knee – definitely not a man to stand next to in a thunderstorm. With Paul Marshall the only back left on the bench, Deccie chose to bring on Iain Henderson and move POM - he played on the wing for Cork Con in an AIL semi-final you know – out to the flank. In my opinion this was up there with the captaincy, ROG and Tom Court decisions for peculiarity given that Cronin or Marshall both would have made more sense. Mind you, by that stage we were well into Roald Dahl territory and no matter what the coach did, we were in the mire.
Bravely though they fought following the injuries, we saw enough in the first 20 mins of the match to confirm that the Deccie regime must be terminated immediately. Jamie Heaslip had talked in the week of going out all guns blazing but the heavy artillery had gone missing and all we could muster was a spud gun and even that misfired for all bar 10 minutes of the second half.
The lineout, which seemed to be recovering in the French match, was abject. Rory has had better days with the darts, but there was little or no movement prior to the throw, the calls were obvious and the Italians had little difficulty getting above and in front of the Irish jumpers. Watching the Welsh lineout afterwards was like watching a totally different sport.
As a result of our ineptitude out of touch, we barely saw an Irish maul all afternoon. Our play looked pedestrian by comparison with the Italians, who at least had the nous to ensure that if they were going to hit a forward one out, he would be coming onto the ball at pace. Once again our forwards were loathed to pass, although at least this time we got into double figures with 12 passes, thanks in the main to Heaslip’s 7.
Aided by one of our least effective defensive performances, with even the usually reliable Rory Best missing a third of his tackles, the Azurri, who played all the rugby in the first hald, made inroads into our defence with alarming ease. Zanni, Venditti, McLean and Masi were all prominent again but, as ever, it was the magnificent Parisse who led the Italians from the front. It is alarming how far behind him Heaslip has fallen in such a short time and with little obvious reason.
Not only did the injuries hobble any chance of an Irish win, they highlighted some of Kidney’s selectorial gaffs. Madigan was magnificent in the second half. He showed his full array of sumptuous passing skills and hit the line with real pace and intent on a number of occasions: he was instrumental in our one passage of quality play in the 61st minute that finished in a 3 pointer after Gori committed a stonewall yellow card offence for which he wasn’t even spoken to. Madigan looked every inch the test player and the first challenge for Kidney’s replacement will be to get him into the side. He could play at 10 ahead of Jackson or as a 2nd 5/8 with Marshall/BOD (should he continue) at 13.
Iain Henderson also made a mockery of the 12 minutes he’d accrued in the tournament ahead of the game in Rome. I am not suggesting he should have started, but he is good enough to replace a tiring lock or backrow with 20 minutes to go and should have been in the squad ahead of O’Callaghan at the start of the tournament.
Speaking of DOC, there has been talk that we have seen the last of him in an Ireland shirt. If so, he has had a magnificent career and been intimately involved in many of Ireland’s finest moments. I actually think that he has the drive to keep improving. He’s only 34 next weekend and locks are more Bordeaux than Beaujolais, so he should be able to compete at the top level for another couple of seasons.
In his autobiography, John Hayes writes about DOC’s debut against France in 2003. I offer it here as a tribute to the Munster lock and an indictment of Kidney’s woeful use of the bench.
‘What I remember clearest is Donncha O’Callaghan’s big mop of hair. He had come on for Leo Cullen with ten minutes to go. It was his senior Ireland debut. Donners was wired, a young buck mad for action. He was exploding out of his pants to get on the field, and when he got there he made a huge impact. The rest of us were struggling for air. But he was charging around the place. He must’ve made about five tackles in two minutes. At one stage he made a tackle and I was running onto the next play and he came sprinting past me with this big bush of hair on his head to make another tackle. He had been on the ground and had got up and was tearing past me. And I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t let that happen again. I need to get my arse in gear here now.’ …And that’s the difference a good sub can make to a team that’s running out of steam.’
So a hugely disappointing day and an awful campaign. Deccie’s most ardent fans would have struggled to argue for his retention if they won fewer than 3 games. To win only one, lose to Italy for the first time and finish second from bottom is a return that demands a resignation. He has been a good coach but for at least 2 years he has failed to deliver. There was always a suspicion that the good performances were the exception rather than the rule and so it has proved. I thank him profoundly for the Slam, but if he is still in his job at Easter the dignity caption will be flashing red.
Finally, huge congratulations to Rob Howley and the Welsh team. They produced the performance of this, and perhaps any championship to expose the English as the mediocre work in progress that they are. To be fair to the English, they contributed hugely to a massively enjoyable game but were a long way off the pace and the scoreline is no less than the Welsh deserved.
P.S. As I write, the Irish ladies have just won the Grand Slam, which is a truly fantastic achievement. Congratulations to Fiona Coghlan, Phillip Doyle and the team on a magnificent performance.
Good night and good luck
Thank goodness for small mercies; France. Only the French paucity of ideas and selection malfunctions (especially relative to their resources) allowed Ireland off the hook for the most disastrous Six Nations of 2013. It was a close run thing though. In fact, the draw in Dublin appears pretty fitting now. Maybe Ireland were better because of the first 50mins against Wales. But France did manage to get past Scotland. It's a lesser-of-two-evils debate for the ages.
It would be moot at this point to worry too much about individual Irish performers against Italy. The amount of injury disruption going into Saturday was unprecedented but 20 mins in and things took a turn for the ludicrous. Injuries have certainly been a factor in Ireland's season but the general malaise around the Irish camp has been a much bigger issue. Poor gameplans, poor execution, low confidence and indiscipline have marred the season. The team has looked nervy and frustrated and protest though they might, it has not looked like a happy camp.
Every coaching ticket has its lifespan and Ireland need fresh voices and ideas. The Irish management team delivered the ultimate prize in 2009 and for that we should be eternally grateful. But the sell by date has been past. Good night and good luck.
We had to wait till the penultimate match but Wales finally delivered a performance worthy of champions. They had returned to winning ways in unspectacular fashion but their second half blitz of high tempo rugby was too much for England. And England are not made to chase games with no playmakers from 10-13, a fullback on one wing, a woefully out of form winger on the other and a one paced fullback. Adam Jones confirmed his status as the Lions tighthead, it's hard to believe Alun Wyn Jones is still only 27 and Justin Tipuric looks increasingly influential in Test rugby. Worthy champions for a non-vintage tournament.
Special mention must go to the only team to win a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2013; the Irish Women's Rugby team's win in Italy may not have been a match to remember but the English men would gladly have taken 6-3 in Cardiff and they couldn't manage it. A wonderful achievement by all involved.
Team of the Tournament
1. Thomas Domingo
2. Richie Hibbard
3. Adam Jones
4. Jim Hamilton
5. Geoff Parling
6. Alessandro Zanni
7. Justin Tipuric
8. Sergio Parisse
9. Ben Youngs
11. George North
12. Wesley Fofana
13. Brian O'Driscoll
14. Alex Cuthburt
15. Andrea Masi
St. Patrick's Day, and the headline reads 'Ireland are Grand Slam Champions.'
It's the dream we all held a few short weeks ago and when three tries saw Ireland lead 30-3 in Cardiff, it was a dream which appeared to be realistic. Yet now it is Wales who are celebrating Championship success, and the Irish Grand Slam that did materialise belongs to our wonderful women. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, face levels of scrutiny and questioning not seen for many years.
Saturday's loss in Rome was an abject end to a dismal Six Nations. A spate of first-half injuries in the Irish backline didn't help, but it's possible Ireland would have lost regardless - playing a back row forward on the wing is never the best strategy when trying to score tries, but it's not like we've been very good at that this season. Counting the last half-hour of that afternoon in Cardiff, and the remaining four games, Ireland scored just two tries in what is effectively six hours of play. That toothlessness is what cost Declan Kidney's men, ultimately, but it is understandable when the preferred out-half, inside centre and two starting wings miss at least some of the tournament.
Saturday's efforts were also derailed by the other theme of this campaign, namely self-inflicted errors. This was seen in the lineout in Rome, and not for the first time. The failure to rectify problems in the lineout could be disastrous for Rory Best's hopes of starting on the Lions tour, and also reflects very poorly on the coaching staff. The only plus point, generally, from this campaign has been Ireland's defence. Too often though, Ireland have been out-thought - be it Jim Hamilton causing havoc in the lineout in Edinburgh, England snuffing out any attempts at creativity or Picamoles' quick penalty in Dublin - and that simply isn't good enough, from players or from management. I don't think Ireland were ever out-worked though - the required effort was always there, even if it didn't get the deserved reward.
Moving forward, and no matter who leads Ireland, there is now a need but also a genuine opportunity to re-assess the national team. Does the player wellness program need to be revamped? What about the style of play, and the personnel on and off the pitch? Declan Kidney, or his replacement, need to work on these details but in the summer of a Lions tour, two years out from a World Cup, time is on the side of whoever leads that process. For my money, that should be the incumbent, unless one of a very select group of coaches like O'Shea, Schmidt or White are available.
Wales running rampant over England gave the tournament a flourish that a turgid competition probably didn't deserve. England were the better team over the course of the five weeks, but wilted in the cauldron of noise that was the Millenium Stadium. Even that game, showcasing the virtues of Warburton and co., likely piled on more misery for Ireland's players, with our Lions Tour representation levels surely falling in tandem with our nation's standing in the final table. A tournament to forget.
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