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Rugby World Cup: Ireland changes needed to spark dynamic that can inspire win

By Neil Francis

Published 08/10/2015

Offload king: Sean O’Brien needs to start using the old skills that helped Leinster win two Heineken Cups
Offload king: Sean O’Brien needs to start using the old skills that helped Leinster win two Heineken Cups

In the post-match at the Olympic Stadium last Sunday, I literally bumped into most of the Italian team as they made their way out. How was it that at 6ft 7in and 19 stone I was made to feel physically inferior to the departing Italians. Their second-rows of Geldenhuys and Furno just seemed to be enormous.

Cittadini too was a phenomenal physical specimen. I got the impression that when he was a child in school that he could only play 'seek' such was his stature.

Cittadini was far superior in every department to the fabled Castrogiovanni and you wondered why Italy kept picking the bearded Neanderthal penalty machine ahead of Cittadini. Even Italy's backs were big - Venditti and Benvenuti are giants.

This lot presented a formidable challenge to Ireland on a number of counts - size, power and determination, which is a potent mix in the game of rugby union. They were really aggressive and resolute in contact.

Ireland are light-heavyweights, we don't have a huge pack and so when we are confronted by one that has made its mind up that it wants to engage you physically - it is pretty hard to avoid that challenge. In the back-field we don't have any Bastareauds either.

Ireland struggle when they meet packs that are up a weight division on them. That is one of the reasons why the score was 16-9 and the French, not that they needed any further encouragement from watching the match on Sunday, will know that the best way of subjugating Ireland is to try to mince them up front.

On Sunday the expected turkey shoot by some fans did not materialise. Add in the quality of the Italian tackling and a shed-load of unforced errors from the team in green and it sucks the party atmosphere right out of the bowl. Very hard to play when the crowd are just waiting for a 36-6 scoreline to magic its way onto the scoreboard.

When it does not happen there is almost a tantrum of entitlement. Apart from the buzz for Keith Earls' try which the crowd expected to be one of at least four or five tries, the spectacle was interspersed with oohs and aahs at the severity of the Italian contact and the exasperation at the lack of guile shown by Ireland.

We expect a sea of green and a raucous atmosphere in Cardiff this Sunday, but France in my book are favourites to win. Ireland have so much to think about to get over the line.

Normally when things are not going well - they are not going well for a reason. Ireland have not been playing convincingly against serious opposition.

How is it that SANZA sides and Argentina are beginning to crank it up? The graph is only going one way. What if I said to you that the two semi-finals will be comprised entirely of those four nations. More than a groan of resignation?

This is our best chance … ever! Ireland now have to start taking chances and learning from their failings not just against Italy but since the season began.

There is only so many times a captain can ask a referee to look over his shoulder in a match. Jerome Garces did not referee the hind most foot all afternoon. It might not have been obvious on television but Italy's line was offside all day.

They defended from the outside in and employed a shooter. Line speed is all about organisation and fitness. Italy kept it up for the full 80 and were helped by the fact they weren't pinged once for it. In phase play Italy sometimes had 13 or 14 players either on the line or in the back-field. If there were two Italian tacklers in the ruck at any time that is all that got in. France will do exactly the same.

Their gargantuan pack are confident that a minimalist approach at ruck time will guarantee Ireland no room on either side of the breakdown and if Ireland are as continuously lame in dealing either with massed ranks on the line or a team that closes down space really quickly well then Ireland have nowhere to go except into the air and there was precious little return on any variety of kick recently.

Ireland's pack might go for some pick and goes through the ruck. Those though have to be done quickly and dynamically - it is worth doing as it is the easiest point of attack with forwards off their feet.

The real way to profit from the pick and go is to offload. Remember those? I think Ireland will have to start playing in this fashion.

Sean O'Brien was the offload king when Leinster won two Heineken Cups. It is sad to see such a skilful handling forward just take the tackle and go to ground and place the ball. It was an integral part of his game. He hasn't looked right since his return. Our back-row look like three disparate individuals as opposed to a unit playing in concert.

I wonder would Joe Schmidt make a daring selection and take a gamble here to shake things up.

The game on Sunday will be won in the back three and in the back-row. A couple of unexpected selections to change the dynamic here, peut etre?

Belfast Telegraph

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