Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Tyrone Howe: Ireland have to look on bright side

Tommy Bowe runs over Ireland's first try after a less than impressive opening period against the USA
Tommy Bowe runs over Ireland's first try after a less than impressive opening period against the USA

The first round of the World Cup may not have provided too many surprises in terms of results, but many of the margins were a lot closer than one might have expected.

Scotland almost came unstuck against Romania, France were pushed by Japan and even Italy were level-pegging at half-time against Australia.

Searching for reasons why this might be the case, you need to look no further than USA’s performance against Ireland.

Eddie O’Sullivan’s men are known for their physical commitment. It lies in the culture of the country. You meet Americans who don’t know much about rugby, and invariably they say, ‘isn’t that like American football without the padding — you guys must be mad’.

Whether they are right or wrong with their last assertion, the parallels with American football account for the fact that US rugby players like their collisions. In fact, they live for collisions.

It appeals to the US sporting psyche, makes for good TV and gets the crowd cheering. It is sheer sporting entertainment — a rugby stadium is a 21st century Colosseum with modern-day gladiators. Ultimately, what Todd Clever’s men might have lacked in technique, they made up for in sheer doggedness.

Yet, there was a lot more than tenacity in the USA’s game. O’Sullivan did one heck of a job, given the time and resources at his disposal and his players took the fight impressively to Ireland.

As a result, I am not as disheartened as most about what I saw from Ireland. The atrocious conditions dictated that the match would be a complete dogfight — the last thing Declan Kidney wanted.

With technical advantage at the set-piece we saw much better driven lineouts and mauls from Ireland than recent weeks. There was greater composure and the forwards made plenty of ground which will give confidence.

However, the fundamental problem remains — even with forward domination, we still seem to lack the ability to break through or down defences.

A slippy ball can only account for so much. Yes, it makes it more difficult to get tricky passes away, but in that same nanosecond, Ireland often ended up being tackled man-and-ball and missed scoring opportunities.

A scoreline of over 30 points would have made the result and performance appear a lot different. Consistently, though, Ireland have suffered problems in attack and the issues go deeper than just weather conditions.

The breakdown was a bearpit, but Ireland were not the only side to get heavy duty treatment at the breakdown. When you mix physicality, intent and technique it is extremely tough and there is little you can do about it, as England found in their own battle against Argentina.

To the players’ credit, Ireland weathered the storm and used every ounce of experience to come through this first test. Apart from the end of a match, the increasingly key times in a game are the five or ten minutes either side of half-time.

While others are looking for the sanctuary of the changing-room, you have to play right up until the 40 minute mark and hit the ground running immediately as you take the pitch again.

Tommy Bowe might have endured a tough opening half — how could he not when he is still getting match fit — but he is a dangerous and experienced predator, running lines that he knows give him a chance of exploiting potential gaps. He is one of the few gamebreakers in the Irish XV and just in case we needed a reminder, he proved his worth to the team.

As rugby matures as a professional sport, the gap is closing between the tiers due to the rest of the world catching up in terms of physicality.

All the teams demonstrate size, strength and speed and a decent amount of savvy at the breakdown means that it is more difficult, nigh impossible, to outmuscle teams than it was in the old days.

Players are bigger, quicker and fitter, but the pitch is the same size. Logic dictates there will be less space and bodies collide at increased frequency.

Thus, the early exchanges of a game will take on the proportions of a slugfest rather than a rugby match. The organisation and understanding of defensive structures has improved with teams far less likely to be exposed.

The key words are breakdown, quick ball and offloads — what must be worrying for Kidney is that these are exactly the areas in which Ireland continue to struggle.

Tyrone’s talking point - James Hook’s ‘score’

As predicted, Wales proved that they are in the best shape of any Home Nation. Warren Gatland’s men could and should have beaten South Africa. The big talking point — James Hook’s penalty that was but wasn’t — continues to divide opinion.

It is not the first time that referee Wayne Barnes has been the subject of controversy. In this instance, however, I am convinced that he did little wrong. Firstly, the technology is there to be used, but had Hook wanted to refer the kick to the Television Match Official, he had to ask at the time — right there and then. There is no way that you can revisit a decision later in the game.

Secondly, it would have been an even bigger call for Barnes to overrule his touch-judges, who were standing under the posts and in a better position to make that call. Think about it from a referee’s position – he would have to be absolutely certain in order to overrule his assistants.

Barnes trusted his own team-mates, the guys who were closer to the action than he was. While the decision was important, it was not responsible for the defeat. Rather, Wales suffered through a classic Northern Hemisphere inferiority complex — a lack of self-belief — rather than a refereeing decision.

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