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Ireland are in transition but all is not lost

By Gavin Mairs

Watching New Zealand tear apart a disjointed England side in Christchurch on Saturday morning provided a new perspective on Ireland's narrow defeat to the All Blacks earlier in the month.

It was Graham Henry's side's second comprehensive win against England in which his side scored a total of 81 points in the two games and conceded just 32 since Ireland went down 21-11 in the freezing temperatures and heavy rain of Wellington.

Ireland's failure to convert a promising situation into what would have been a first ever victory in 103 years against New Zealand inevitably led to perennial criticisms that Michael Bradley's side lacked the killer instinct or mental robustness to finish off the job against an under-cooked looking opponents.

That sentiment was only underscored a week later when Ireland again came up short after running Australia close before slipping to an 18-12 defeat at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne.

On reflection however, those performances resemble much more creditable displays, particularly in light of England's woe and indeed of Wales' plight in their two-Test defeat to South Africa.

New Ireland coach Declan Kidney, in his role as observer on the tour, is the man best placed to address the psychological problems of the squad, having worked wonders at Munster.

If his squad remains worryingly lightweight at prop and out-half, and to a lesser extent centre, Kidney will have been encouraged by the performances of Robert Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Paddy Wallace, who encouragingly revelled in his midfield role on the international stage.

He will inherit a structured side from former coach Eddie O'Sullivan, and although it requires significant tinkering and a fresh approach from top to bottom, the canvas is much more defined that the current shambles that Martin Johnson will inherit when he becomes England's supremo next month.

Ireland's bubble was well and truly burst by the horrendous World Cup experience, and Irish supporters can now look forward to a period of more modest expectations, with incremental improvements the realistic goal.

England, although they reached the World Cup final last October, haven't enjoyed an enduring structure or even a identifiable game plan since Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis trophy back in November 2003.

While the RFU remain the most wealthy union in world rugby and their playing resources are envied by everyone bar New Zealand and South Africa, Johnson will have his hands full.

Of all the home nations, only Scotland secured a win in the southern hemisphere, with a 26-14 victory over a weakened Argentina side in the second Test following a 21-15 defeat.

Victory for Frank Hadden's side has had a knock-on effect for Ireland because it moved Scotland up above Fiji into ninth in the world rankings.

Ireland are currently just one place ahead in eighth place and it is imperative Kidney's men hold on to that position by the end of the autumn Test series as the IRB will use a seeded system for drawing the pools for the World Cup in 2011 and the top eight should avoid a pool of death.

Ireland have a slightly easier autumn schedule, with heavyweight clashes against New Zealand and third-ranked Argentina following a warm-up against Canada.

Scotland face world champions South Africa and New Zealand before finishing their campaign off against the Canadians.

Wales coach Warren Gatland will have been disappointed by his side's two-Test defeat to the Springboks but at least the second performance was greatly improved and the Grand Slam champions will be confident of taking their game to a new level next season.

New Zealand's 44-12 victory over England in Christchurch on Saturday sees them remain in second in the latest IRB world rankings, but they have moved 0.08 ratings points closer to South Africa.

Belfast Telegraph


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