Ireland v Samoa: Performance as important as the result against strong Samoans
When Wales put together Grand Slams under the guidance of Mike Ruddock and Warren Gatland in 2005 and 2008 respectively, there emerged what many outside the Principality perceived as an arrogant, self-anointed colloquialism there named, the ‘Welsh way'.
The Welsh modus operandi at the time was a vibrant brand of high-tempo, fingertip passing and offloading at or before the tackle. It was expansive and exciting, but more than anything, hugely effective, winning rugby.
I was an unqualified convert, not because it was box office, bums-on-seats entertainment, but because it was a case of a rugby nation playing to its undoubted strengths. It is the essence of good coaching — the formation of a system based on the skill set available.
Both Ruddock and Gatland worked to a plan aimed at getting the most out of the players available to them.
The system evolved around the players and not vice versa.
This is the way it should be and in a thinly veiled message in midweek, Declan Kidney hinted as such about this Irish team and where it is at as we move towards New Zealand 2011. In committing to work towards restoring the ‘Irish way,' Kidney was introducing a touch of reality, given the global rush to copy the All Blacks and Wallabies.
In holding up his hands and admitting that he had expected too much of his team and they expected too much of themselves last week, it illustrated the refreshing honesty within which he and the team work.
The most revealing statement in the aftermath of last Saturday's bitterly disappointing performance against South Africa came when he said: “We know we can play better, but we have a plan and we don't want to tighten up or seize up, we want to play an Irish way.”
So, what is the ‘Irish way'? For me it has long been closer to what the Springboks did to us at Lansdowne Road seven days ago than what the other two southern hemisphere giants are doing to just about everybody else, given the shift in refereeing emphasis from tackled player to tackler.
For Ireland it is about getting the fundamentals right. Last week we came a poor second at the line-out and beyond that, failed to master the difficult ball-handling conditions. You earn the right to go wide — on wet days more than ever.
However, as Kidney said, we will learn from what happened and become a better side.
The ‘Irish way' today has a counter-attacking potential vastly superior to anything from times past. In Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls we have players whose instinct is to attack.
The trick, of course, is in getting the balance right and therein lies the nub of the issue. Right now, with just hours to kick-off in the second match of the four-game series, I don't believe the head coach knows his best starting XV.
Put simply, and in the enforced absence of Jerry Flannery, Tomas O'Leary and Paul O'Connell, virtually every player running out today — and bear in mind there are 10 changes in personnel plus one positional switch from last week — is playing with the incentive of a starting place for the biggest game of the Autumn Series next weekend.
And no, we are not getting ahead of ourselves in underestimating the Samoan threat.
The main point about this game today is that it has a massive individual and collective relevance for an Irish squad in transition. A winning performance of substance is essential.
In specific terms, that means getting the line-out, the scrum, the maul and all round defence, fringe and midfield, right. You play the day and the opposition in whatever order. The rest follows.
The make-up of the bench is also significant. It is heavy on potential impact. However, for relative rookies like Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien, opportunity knocks — as it does for Fitzgerald at full-back.
For the older heads like Paddy Wallace, Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara, this is a genuine chance to grab that game-shaping nine, 10, 12 axis by the scruff.
Far from a relatively meaningless friendly against South Sea opposition, this is a must- win, must-perform game against dangerous opposition, with the potential ramifications way beyond the 80 minutes itself.
Kidney's thinking, ahead of this Autumn Series, could well have changed dramatically come 4.30 this afternoon.
There may be far too many empty seats for the second week running, but let that not detract from the importance of this game.
Denis Leamy appreciates full well the significance of this one for him. Expect the vastly experienced Munster man to respond accordingly.
For the dynamic Cronin, the presence of the skylab that is Toner should help his line-out nerves immeasurably.
It was said that when lifting was introduced in the line-out, it would remove the need for tall timber in the second-row. Not so. When 6ft 10ins can be lifted to unprecedented heights, it makes life for the thrower so much easier. Could Toner be the new Malcolm O'Kelly?
For those of us here on November 12, 1996, the 40-25 thumping dished out by Pat Lam, Inga Tuigamala and Co will never be forgotten.
Physicality and uncompromising tackling come with the territory against the Samoans. The Manu Samoans are a very proud and close island people.
They have power, pace and dynamism in abundance.
Much like Ireland, they are loaded with attacking potential in Paul Williams, David Lemi and Alesana Tuilagi down the outside channels, while London Irish wrecking-ball Seilala Mapusua is guaranteed to take it up the Wallace/O'Gara corridor at every opportunity.
The bookies are being a tad generous to Ireland in their spread, but given the disappointment of seven days ago, anything other than a winning Irish performance of substance is unthinkable.