Peter Bills: Great year for Irish rugby but still plenty to work on
A year of triumph, that is the glowing memory Irish rugby men will take from 2009.
Nine wins and a draw, an unbeaten run that has transformed the state of the game in this country. But Ulster paid a price for this latest victory against the Springboks.
By early in the second half, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and BJ Botha had all departed injured, a potentially calamitous setback for the Ulster squad.
Only in the next 48 hours will the extent of their injuries and likely recovery time become clearer.
But once the celebrations had begun to die down at foggy, freezing Croke Park on Saturday night, wise heads in the Irish rugby camp began to turn their attention to the New Year.
They know that much hard work still remains to be done if this highly promising generation of Irish rugby men is to fulfil its true potential at the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
That was why coach Declan Kidney rightly refused to go overboard about this win. He expressed quiet satisfaction at a job well done and a successful conclusion to the autumn programme. But Kidney is no fool — he knows that two areas in particular require close attention to detail in the Irish game.
France, whom Ireland will meet in Paris on February 13, may have been torched by the All Blacks in Marseille on Saturday night. But they still have a scrummage that could murder the current Irish front row.
Unless progress can be made in improving the scrummaging skills of both John Hayes and Cian Healy or alternatives can be found, such a weakness will be cruelly exposed by the aggressive French front row.
Kidney has made it pretty clear this autumn by his policy of soldiering on with the personnel in situ that he doesn’t have great faith in Tom Court or Tony Buckley.
But Hayes can’t last forever and Paris might represent a watershed. If Ireland lose because their scrum is annihilated then Kidney would have to act with the World Cup by then barely 18 months away.
There is, too, another area of concern for Ireland. Turning pressure near the opposition line into tries is proving devilishly difficult for Kidney’s men on the evidence of Saturday’s game.
On several occasions, they drove to within a few yards of the South African goal line but that familiar condition, white line fever, then took over.
Common symptoms are players feeling the urge to hurl themselves at a wall of bodies lined up on the line.
There is no way through but these delusional tendencies persuade the ball carrier they will prevail.
Donncha O’Callaghan was a particular victim, lacking nothing in courage or commitment but everything in variety and subtlety.
Ireland simply have to be more inventive than that when they get within range.
Tomas O’Leary’s clever, flat pass to Brian O’Driscoll which put the captain over for the crucial, match saving try against Australia a fortnight earlier, was one example of a remedy.
New Zealand were in an identical position early in the game against France in Marseille on Saturday night.
The French manned the barricades close in so what did the All Blacks do? Hammer at them constantly, Irish fashion? No.
From the first re-cycled ball, they spun the ball wide and a defensive hole allowed Sivivatu to score.
Ireland can learn from that. Jonathan Sexton tried one cross-kick but his kick lacked precision and the chance was lost.
Ireland must work on this deficiency between now and the Six Nations in February. Like their scrummaging, it is a weakness they have to address.