Ireland v Samoa: Time for Irish to front up to problems
Ireland 20 Samoa 10: With the All Blacks due at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, Ireland were hoping to have solved a few problems by now.
Instead, following inept performances against South Africa and Samoa, they find themselves with more questions than answers as the countdown to this weekend’s date with the best team in the world gathers pace.
With Wednesday being time out, that means they have four days to come up with a solution to their scrum problems.
Against Samoa the Irish from row conceded three scrum-time penalties and four frees. Clearly they had a major issue with New Zealand referee Keith Brown’s calls.
But that apart the scrum has been a problem for a long time. John Hayes has been a marvellous servant, witness 103 caps. The time for change, however, has come.
There were those who thought Hayes’s fellow-Munsterman, Tony Buckley, was the answer and the future. That was until a South African called Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira proved otherwise on November 6.
When the Buckley could take no more, Ulster’s Tom Court came on to replace him at tighthead and the scrum improved immediately.
On Saturday, against the Samoans, Court started on the loosehead side, where he too struggled with the “crouch, touch, pause, engage” routine, witness his concession of two penalties. But when he switched to replace Hayes for the final 17 minutes, again the effect was as obvious as it was instant. Finally the Irish scrum was holding its own. Comfortably.
That wasn’t all down to Court, of course. Three minutes before his entrance two other Ulster
forwards had joined the fray — hooker Rory Best and blindside Stephen Ferris, the latter replacing Jamie Heaslip in a move which saw Denis Leamy switch to No 8.
Best and Court were at ease in one another’s company, with Cian Healy’s introduction at number one completing a front row which looked and performed rather better than the original Court, Sean Cronin, Hayes combination.
I have no doubt now that if Court played tighthead for Ulster he would be Ireland’s first-choice in that position.
Samoa were tough opponents, with their starting line-up featuring half-a-dozen who ply their trade in England’s Aviva Premiership, five who are with outfits competing in New Zealand club rugby’s upper tier and three playing Top 14 in France.
Blindside Ofisa Trevarinus was the sole Samoa-based player.
Against them Ireland were unable to keep possession for long enough to make things happen.
In the face of intense pressure by the Samoan back row and midfield they could not retain the ball, let alone cross the gain line. No-one quite seemed to know what to do to solve the problem.
A first minute O’Gara penalty failed to settle them, even though with 10 changes and one switch to the previous weekend’s starting line-up they boasted a wealth of experience. They took to the field with 15 players between them boasting 648 caps including a trio of centurions in captain Brian |O’Driscoll, O’Gara and Hayes. Samoa, in contrast, had a combined total of 148.
Nowhere was the 500-cap gulf in experience better illustrated than immediately behind the pack.
Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotualii was winning only his second cap while his partner Tasesa Lavea was making his international debut. In contrast Ireland’s Peter Stringer and O’Gara were chalking up their 93rd and 101st appearances respectively.
All four made significant contributions; Fotualii was voted the man of the match, Clermont’s Lavea’s excellent hands put Leicester’s Alesana Tuilagi in for a fine 22nd minute try and quick-thinking Stringer enabled O’Gara to bag what proved to be the vital touchdown with 14 minutes |remaining.
O’Gara converted that, as he had Jamie Heaslip’s try after prolonged pressure and disciplined recycling close to the Samoan line at the end of the first quarter. And two first-half goals saw him finish the day with 15 points and a 100 per cent record off the tee.
It was enough to give Ireland their first win since March 13 when they beat Wales before embarking on a run of six defeats, four of those in Tests.
But it doesn’t change the fact that they have an awful lot of work to do between now and Saturday. Too much, I fear.