Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Niall Crozier: This display convinces noone Ireland are making progress

USA's Taku Ngwenya is tackled by Stephen Ferris of Ireland

Ireland have problems. Big problems. The unconvincing nature their victory over opponents who had no scrum, no line-out and could not maul their way out of a supermarket check-out queue does not augur well for their World Cup prospects.

Eleven of the 15 who started for the USA are amateurs, so never mind technique or skill-levels; in terms of fitness alone Ireland ought to have been able to blow them away.

They didn’t; instead it was the no-hopers who scored a last-minute try following yet another unforced Irish error, that one courtesy of Gordon D’Arcy whose pass was intercepted by Paul Emerick who sprinted home from half-way.

It was a moment which summed up the paucity of Ireland’s backs’ performance.

The inability to cash in on their total domination of the set-piece was the most damning aspect of a sub-standard performance. It was quite amazing to watch a team, enjoying complete control of both scrum and line-out, unable to build on such strong foundations.

The Leinster trio of Jonathan Sexton (right), D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll have to take much of the blame for that. Sexton’s kicking game – both out of hand and off the tee – was wretched and Kidney must now be thinking seriously about starting with Ronan O’Gara at 10 for Saturday’s Pool C meeting with Australia at Eden Park.

Sexton’s colleagues in the centre were shadows of themselves. I cannot recall so poor an |O’Driscoll performance in the 12 years in which he has graced the international stage, causing me to wonder about the fitness of a man who has had one match since May. Is he match-fit?

Australia certainly will not be losing any sleep. Nor will Italy – who can scrummage and do have a line-out. Already the final group-stage match in which Ireland will go head to head with the Azzurri at Dunedin’s Carisbrook Stadium on October 2 has the makings of another of nerve-wracking affair.

Poor Irish form in August’s four Tests was, we were assured, no big deal. These were warm-up games, we were reminded, not the World Cup. It would be different when the tournament got under way.

Well, it is under way and on the tangible evidence rather than the words of reassurance Ireland do not appear to be a whole lot further on than was the case when they left these shores.

What were the positives?

The scrum was good, though that must be measured against the quality of the opposition. The line-out went very well, too, with the accuracy of Rory Best’s throwing enabling Munster’s second rows to provide ample possession.

Quite how those behind and wide of the pack were unable to make more of that flow of ball is as baffling as it is worrying.

Why didn’t Ireland just keep things simple and exploit the Americans’ forward weaknesses by working off set pieces? The evidence in support of such tactics was overwhelming, witness the fact that two of their three tries came from scrums and the third following a line-out. Why not just play to your strengths?

What of the Ulster players’ contributions? After a slow start Stephen Ferris just got better and better. The Ulster flanker was Ireland’s best ball-carrier by a distance and he put in a phenomenal amount of work around the Rotorua Stadium pitch.

Best’s contribution, both in set piece and loose, was telling. An hour of perfect line-out throwing topped off with a well-taken try make his case well.

Tom Court had Shawn Pittman in his pocket and did his reputation as a scrummager no harm at all.

His concession of a couple of penalties won’t have pleased him.

Andrew Trimble’s late introduction from the bench left the in-form wing with little time in which to shine and his hoof-and-hope upfield kick in the final minute when Ireland ought to have been looking for a bonus-clinching fourth try was ill-advised.

Paddy Wallace was not in the 22 but may now come into the reckoning given the poor form shown by D’Arcy.

So a winning start, but still many more questions than answers

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