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Six Nations: Sense of injustice does not disguise obvious signs of Ireland's decline

By Niall Crozier

Ireland’s RBS Six Nations Championship decline continues. Two years ago they were unbeatable, winning all five matches to walk away with the Grand Slam.

They also saw off Canada, USA, Fiji and South Africa as well as drawing with Australia to end the calendar year undefeated.

In 2010 they lost away to France who trounced them 33-10 in Paris last February.Then a home defeat by Scotland in the final match of the Championship in March heralded a run of six successive Test reverses with New Zealand, New Zealand Maori, Australia and South Africa beating Ireland.

In November 2010 they beat Samoa to stop the rot, only then to lose to the All Blacks before returning to winning ways against Argentina.

Clearly nothing like as impressive as 2009 and certainly neither results nor performaces suggestive of progress.

To date in 2011 Ireland have played four Championship matches, going down 25-22 to the French in Dublin and 19-13 to Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. Fifty per cent failure.

That Millennium Stadium defeat in particular has re-awakened doubts, not least because Wales went into the match on the back of a year-long run of home defeats. Five of them, in fact, which meant they had not beaten anybody in Cardiff since March 2010.

Ireland’s away record against the Welsh since 1985 was 11 wins, a draw and one loss in 13 matches, so the weekend’s result is a real cause for concern.

True, Ireland did lose injured scrum-half Eoin Reddan after just 43 seconds whereupon they introduced Peter Stringer alongside Munster and international half-back partner Ronan O’Gara. Now for me that does not amount to any weakening of the Irish line-up.

Indeed, they handled this unexpected development by promptly scoring a try in which Stringer played a key part by linking with Tommy Bowe whose pass enabled captain Brian O’Driscoll to finish.

And O’Gara’s conversion made it a double cause for celebration for it gave him the two points he needed to make history as the first Irishman to score 1,000 in international rugby.

But from that moment on Ireland scored only six more points from two O’Gara penalties in the final 10 minutes of the first 40.

Wales’s first-half response was a brace of James Hook penalties and a third by Leigh Halfpenny which left Ireland leading 13-9 at the break.

But they added not a point in the second half, although they had chances to do so. Right to the last second they threatened, but to no avail, hence my fears for them. Winners know how to finish.

Yes, the all-important moment of the match came in the 50th minute when Welsh skipper Matt Rees used a replacement ball for a quick line-out to Mike Phillips. Call it opportunism, call it dishonesty, but referee Jonathan Kaplan deemed it good.

If you must have someone to blame, try another Jonathan – Sexton – who, having just taken over from O’Gara, put the ball into touch close to half-way so giving Rees the opportunity to chance his arm. Phillips took full advantage of Ireland’s missing defence and Hook landed a splendid conversion to make it 16-13.

Even then Ireland might have won it but for some poor decision-making, not least by replacement Paddy Wallace who really ought to have passed to Keith Earls when a try beckoned.

O’Driscoll went agonisingly close to a record 25th Championship try right at the death, but the superbly disciplined red defensive line held as Ireland swarmed forward.

I felt for Irish blindside Sean O’Brien who certainly did not deserve to be a loser. Worryingly, too many of his colleagues did.

Belfast Telegraph


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