Kidney’s men are back on track for World Cup assault
At Twickenham on Saturday, Declan Kidney and his team bounced back from the Parisien lesson to produce pretty much the perfect performance.
England's inadequacies should not detract one iota from an Irish win every bit as important in its longer-term ramifications as its shorter-term needs.
This game, this performance and this result are all pivotal in the march towards New Zealand 2011. The nature of Irish rugby (certainly when compared to Saturday's opposition rich in cash and players) dictates that we can seldom take our eye off the next game, but in terms of full restoration of the confidence dented in France, this victory was critical.
Beating the French in Paris was always likely to be the biggest hurdle in this championship. We were well beaten on the day with few complaints from management but where Kidney earns his corn, and what maps him out as different in my book, is his ability to keep a lid on emotions — good or bad — in the heat of the moment.
The head coach would have had a grand plan incorporating what he would do in the event of a defeat in Paris. He knew better than anyone the likelihood of England arriving at the third weekend with two wins and early momentum on their side.
The days when dangling a white shirt in front of a green one provided sufficient motivation for players are long gone. Professionalism demands much more detailed preparation than that.
No more than Kidney got carried away with victory over the French in Dublin 12 months ago did he lose it over defeat to the same opposition in Paris. He knew the little things — the kind bounce here, the pushed pass there — that went our way in Croke Park, shifted the French way in Paris 12 months later.
That might sound a tad simplistic, but there were reasons why accuracy in execution failed to reach the required standard and, courtesy of Mervyn Murphy, Eoin Toolan plus the rest of the analytical crew, Kidney would have broken into minute detail the whys and wherefores of Paris prior to London.
But the proof of the pudding will always be in the eating. You will not hear Kidney acknowledging it in public but, rest assured, he knows that he, his management team and his squad got it pretty close to perfect on Saturday.
It was the most complete performance of the Kidney era. Other wins have been more spectacular and headline-grabbing, but this had depth and substance, particularly given the backdrop and potential ramifications.
So where to from here? Realistically the championship is gone. If France perform in their remaining two games at home there can be but one outcome and I don't think anyone can argue with that.
On Friday night at the Millennium Stadium the French did for the best part of an hour to the Welsh what they did to us for a similar time span a fortnight before. Warren Gatland was (in stark contrast to Kidney) less than gracious in his losing assessment. “At no stage did we feel under pressure because I don't think they (France) played a lot of rugby. There was only one team playing rugby, but we were the architects of our own demise. The two intercept tries were really costly. It is hugely frustrating.”
Gatland knows as well as any that intercept tries and penalty-kicking opportunities come from pressure exerted through well-organised, incessantly aggressive defending. I think it was rather rich when immediately upon his appointment he employed Shaun Edwards — renowned for the quality of his full-on blitz defence — as assistant Wales coach. What the French did to us and to the Welsh, we must look to replicate in Croke Park against Gatland and company next up.
Les Kiss has proved to be flexible in his defensive approach, not least in the way he passes responsibility to the player in the right position at the time to make the appropriate decision.
In his Ireland days, Gatland's preferred option was the four-up defence — out-half, centres and wing — so it's not as if his philosophy has changed that radically. It's all very well talking about your team “playing rugby” but now, in these claustrophobic midfield times, you have to earn the right to go wide more than ever.
Someone else (not Gatland, but Welsh) suggested in the immediate aftermath of Friday's game that the tries weren't created by the opposition (France) but by mistakes from the home team. However, when a team exerts the type of pressure that the French do when they don't have the ball, then you can argue that their defence forced the interception tries. Yes, give me Shane Williams dancing down the wing past would-be tacklers every time, but equally let's not denigrate Alexis Palisson or Francois Trinh-Duc for the quality of organisation and risk-taking in their intercept tries.
How often have we seen the sharpest football brain in the business, that of Brian |O'Driscoll, doing just that for Leinster and for Ireland?
The number of coaches/managers in all sports who see it but one way never ceases to amaze me. Martin Johnson was at it on Saturday, questioning decisions by referee Mark Lawrence when awarding the scrum put-in to Ireland in the final minutes close to the Irish line and the penalty reversal against Danny Care for man-handling Tomas O'Leary to the ground.
Not a mention of the English pushover try awarded by the Italian TMO. And no, I am not wearing green blinkers here. I still have not been able to identify the ball being definitively touched down. Presumably the TMO did, as surely you cannot give what you cannot see. The one point I would make is that referee Lawrence was best positioned of all to award it at the time and he didn't.
His reaction upon the instruction to give it smacked of surprise, but full credit (because of the doubt in his mind) for resorting to the available technology.