Ireland given a reality check at crucial time
Somebody asked me in the aftermath of Saturday's hugely disappointing defeat if I thought Ireland looked like a side beefed up on over-confidence.
My instant and, I guess, defensive reply would be an automatic ‘no'. Over-confident under Declan Kidney? Never. But I hesitated, because in that question came the biggest disappointment of all. We were over-confident and it paved the way for our downfall.
I said in the build-up that while public expectation was beyond the control of the players, over-confidence was not. Right on public confidence, wrong on the mood within the squad.
It reminded me of England coming to Lansdowne Road in the autumn of 2001 to collect the Grand Slam, which was delayed because of the foot and mouth epidemic. The English chose the most scenic and frenetic route, littered with basic errors, and played right into Ireland's no-nonsense psyche on the day. We won 20-16 and England left with the title, but no Slam.
For England then, read Ireland now. For Ireland then, read Scotland now. Let us not detract one iota from the quality of this Scottish performance. They beat us out of touch, in the scrum and on the scoreboard. They were hungrier and much more pragmatic. Their game had Andy Robinson — and Edinburgh in recent times — stamped all over.
Dan Parks didn't just kick his pressure goals, he played for the most part ‘heads-up rugby' of the most intelligent order. How often did he check direction in defence and switch to Hugo Southwell going towards the opposite, less guarded touchline with that massive left boot?
The Scottish back-row were in scavenging form, while Graeme Morrison was the most effective ball-carrier on the field. Both Scottish scrum-halves were electric, while in the line-out, Jim Hamilton (in particular), Alastair Kellock and Johnnie Beattie, put Rory Best under the type of pressure with which he simply couldn't cope.
Apart from Tommy Bowe and Brian O'Driscoll, there were no comparable Irish performances; apart from them, it was disappointment throughout the side.
It was strange to witness a Kidney team going for broke so early, forcing so many passes and losing the ball, thereby nursing the opposition into the game. You could see the Scots' confidence growing visibly.
If we are brutally honest, the pass for O'Driscoll's try from Jonny Sexton was forward, and even Bowe's grounding left room for doubt.
Apart from the obvious substitution of Sexton with Ronan O'Gara, which the coach called 12 minutes into the second half, the one other tactical switch he might have made was to bring Leo Cullen into the second-row.
It is easy to jump onto the bandwagon and suggest that Sean Cronin, Tony Buckley and Shane Jennings might have been called in to sort out a forward unit sinking under pressure. But if there was such an obvious fix, do you not think the canniest and most successful coach in Irish rugby history would have done just that?
What is for certain is that it is a major setback for this team in its development towards New Zealand 2011. To have bounced back from the Paris mauling in the manner we did spoke volumes for Kidney and the attitude within his squad, but this defeat and everything about it, cuts so much deeper than that again. It is bitter blow at the end of an otherwise reasonable campaign. Maybe it is a good thing there is nothing now until the June tour Down Under.
It should also encourage those on the fringe to up the effort over the coming months. The slate hasn't been wiped clean, but there is need for change and measured experimentation. There must also be a heavy emphasis on set-piece development if we are to put it up to the Wallabies, All Blacks and Maoris.
Saturday wasn't by any means the curtain-call for this talented Irish group, but it was a defeat as bad as it was unexpected. It was, too, a reality check. We are good, but nowhere near as good as we thought we were.
The soft landing we had hoped for following last year's unprecedented glory is suddenly a hell of a lot harder than any of us had anticipated.