Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Ireland left to rue a missed opportunity after Test defeats

A dejected Donncha O'Callaghan at the end of the tour

The numbers make for pretty grim reading. Twenty-three days, 11 flights, six hotels, 12 pairs of recycled boxers, four ‘Taranaki Daily News' attacks, one mayoral condemnation and more hakas than you could shake a stick at.

And that's just from this side of the fence: the Ireland players and management could add in three defeats, 14 tries conceded, an unfeasible number of withdrawals and one red card. A downbeat tour ended on a downbeat note in Brisbane when the Wallabies held off an under-powered, mentally drained Ireland for a seven-point victory.

However, while Saturday's Test was a fittingly low-key end, this tour was a worthwhile if winless exercise which threw up plenty of topics for debate.

HITS

New additions: Who could have predicted at the start of the season that Rhys Ruddock, Damien Varley, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry would be capped before their next summer holidays? All came through strongly, as did Johne Murphy and relative rookies Sean Cronin and Niall Ronan, while the most gratifying cap won on this tour was the one that went to John Fogarty. For services rendered to Irish rugby, that honour was well deserved and those few minutes for Fogarty against New Zealand are worth more than the 13 caps won by Ross Nesdale in the late 1990s — a hooker who was about as Irish as the Maori spear we brought back from Rotorua.

Old stagers: With so many experienced heads absent, it was vital that Declan Kidney had leaders to step up in adverse circumstances. Donncha O'Callaghan had a good tour in this regard, on the pitch and around the squad. Geordan Murphy showed excellent leadership, and form, against the Maori, while Mick O'Driscoll used all his experience to turn around a malfunctioning line-out against the Wallabies. Other players who have been around the block to step up to the mark were Paddy Wallace, Gavin Duffy and Andrew Trimble — a rejuvenated ‘veteran' at 25.

Expansion: As well as expanding playing resources through the new additions mentioned above, there was a definite extension in the width and verve of Ireland's back-line play. When Ireland landed the Grand Slam last year, backs coach Alan Gaffney was the least referenced member of the coaching ticket as the Irish stuck to a pragmatic game-plan revolving around kicking for territory and points.

The Australian was front and centre on this trip and the Irish backs showed in the second half against the All Blacks and against the Maori that they had the ability to mix it up wide — good to know heading into World Cup year with the new interpretations.

Mark Tainton: A tough Six Nations for the kicking coach when Jonathan Sexton got the yips, but Ireland's place-kicking stats on tour were up above 90pc.

Spirit: The intangible quality that shone through strongly on this trip. It may seem like a straw-clutching exercise to point to good morale and camaraderie when all three matches were lost but, given what transpired in New Plymouth, the Maori and Australia games would have been a lot worse without it.

SUMMARY

This is a tour that will quickly be forgotten by the Irish rugby public but one that could have a significant bearing on Ireland's World Cup aspirations. For all the troubles to befall the expedition, those that made it there and back again will recall aspects of it very fondly. The 34-hour return journey, followed by a summer of hibernation allows plenty of time for the repercussions to ferment.

The hangover will be intense and slightly surreal but this tour may also just allow Irish rugby to wake up the stronger once the various demons are attacked.

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