Kearney helps Ireland get back on track

By Will Slattery

After the postponed French clash a few weeks ago there was a joke going around that the tied score line meant that Ireland came away with the best result they had gotten in Paris for years. And while the end result has stayed the same since that arctic Parisian night, so much else has changed with the Irish side.

The word stalemate usually conjures an image of two old grand masters silently playing chess surrounded by old mahogany and many leather bound books. But in the context of Ireland’s draw against France, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the programme chronicling the 2009 Lions team, Coach Shaun Edwards is seen rallying the side by saying, “Who’s going to be doing the humiliating today? Us or them?” So often in Paris, Ireland only needed to wait minutes for the humiliation to begin.

But this year it was Ireland who, while not humiliating France in the opening exchanges, certainly dominated them. The choke tackle defence that Ireland employ is a balancing act between risk and reward. While you can collect a bounty of turnovers you can also give up chunks of yards in the quest to keep the opposition off the deck.

Last weekend was one of the rare instances when the strategy worked perfectly. Stephen Ferris was one of eight Irish forwards that excelled at wrapping up French ball carriers. Rarely is the choke tackle used as effectively without a serial killer being involved.

But for all the greatness of the Irish defence it was truly Rob Kearney’s day. Often Kearney hung in the air as if being held aloft by a puppeteer’s hand. It takes a special player to make a leap in the air as impressive as a line break, but Kearney simply taking the ball from between Harinordoquy’s arms was as athletic as any run.

Kearney also excelled with the ball in hand and Tommy Bowe’s second try was so well executed that it leads you to ponder why Ireland do that about once a year against the top sides and the provinces can do it once a week.

But while Ireland’s first half broken field running was exquisite and hard to stop, the second half saw a regression to the mean. There were handling errors. There was poor kicking. There was an awful defensive sequence that led to a French try. And there were two instances in French territory of Stephen Ferris running diagonally through the available space and passing to a team mate that was basically already in touch.

It was close to a typical Irish performance in Paris but backwards. The first half contained the multi-try fight back with the second half containing the opening scoreless meltdown. But when Ireland has been waiting for more than ten years for a victory on French soil, the draw shouldn’t be scoffed at.

But questions remain, chiefly: Where was this performance when the Welsh came to town and will the team sustain this level of play for the remaining games?

The problem with looking at the first question is that level of knee jerking that follows any game is extraordinary. For instance after France’s win over Italy a pundit put the win down to the fact that they had a new coach in place. After the draw last weekend he said France played poorly because they haven’t been coached well.

The point of that example is that it’s very easy to just point to a “new strategy” employed by a coach as the reason for victory. Ireland tried to employ the choke tackle against Wales but that day the big Welsh ball carriers successfully fought against it. Were there any new back moves on display last weekend? Or did Ireland just execute existing plays better?

Ireland certainly kicked less against France but the reason they kicked more against Wales was because, unlike last weekend, they weren’t getting much from the Welsh defence around the fringes of the ruck.

For some people the six-day turnaround to the next game means we should sound the alarm and start evacuating people to a bomb shelter. When you hear some media members talk about it you would swear the players usually get a few weeks rest between each game. It is a minor problem but when you’re thinking of potential storylines for the Scotland game, that is one of the few that doesn’t involve who has the better national anthem.

Like how our games often go against Italy, Ireland tend to make heavy weather of the Scotland fixture. They are winless and Ireland should be capable of dispatching them in a manner that befits their win total. It will be a good test of whether the French performance was another one off or something that can be sustained.


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