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Tony Ward: There has to be another way than Ireland's caveman tactics and repetitive box kicks


A pause for thought: A dejected Jonathan Sexton
A pause for thought: A dejected Jonathan Sexton
Henry Slade of England steals the ball from Ireland’s Bundee Aki

By Tony Ward

A potentially very good team didn't become a bad team on the back of one poor performance. Just as beating England at Twickenham last March didn't make Ireland a great side, losing to them on Saturday didn't make them imposters.

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That said, you can't pretend this wasn't an abysmally poor team performance, by a distance the worst of the Joe Schmidt era - worse than the comprehensive home defeats to Australia and New Zealand, worse than the loss at Murrayfield two years ago, worse than the World Cup quarter-final beating by Argentina.

For a number of reasons - chiefly the pragmatic quality of the English game plan and its execution - we were made to look a very long way short of the World Cup contenders we hope to be come September.

Eddie Jones' side definitively won both halves, with the 12-point victory margin reflecting their superiority.

We were beaten in every facet of the game, and apart from Sean Cronin's late burst for John Cooney's consolation try, it is difficult to recall anything even resembling an Irish line break.

Credit England for the relentless intensity and the clearly pre-rehearsed ability to consistently snuff out our caveman tactics at source.

The only area where I fundamentally disagree with Joe Schmidt - the best coach ever to come our way, and still the best in the world - is in relation to his slavish adherence to the box kick.

Is this what the game has come to, where the biggest crowd reaction in broken play is when a player in green gets his fingertips to a ball with snow on it? God alone knows where it goes from here - 23 Devin Toners with the athleticism of Rob Kearney in the air?

What we achieved in 2018 was magical. It was the greatest chapter in the history of Irish rugby, but we are not easy on the eye.

Schmidt said "they got access into our aerial battle", which is a horrible expression as well as a telling indictment on our rugby.

There has to be another way, and given our still relative scarce resources, we have got to find it.

Yes, we were clearly beaten up in the tight and tackle-line exchanges, but contrast the quality and variation in England's tactical kicking with our mad-hatter, repetitive boxed up-and-under.

The tramline 'Hail Mary wedge' (unfortunately) has a place in the modern game, but not to the extent to which we now rely on it, particularly against the better teams, who close down space so well.

Rugby is a very difficult game when you lose the battle of the gain-line. We didn't shirk from the forward exchanges, of course, but we did come second, which meant it was hard for individuals to shine.

Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong had their moments, as did big Dev before injury took its toll. Beyond that I am struggling to think of anyone who stood out, save for Garry Ringrose, who still managed to look a class apart. Were a Lions side being selected tomorrow, he would be nailed on at No 13 - his ability against the tide is that good.

The knee-jerk reaction can be all too easy; instead of calling for Schmidt to wield his axe, we have got to be realistic here, with just five days before we face the gung ho Scots in Murrayfield.

The baby will not be going down the plughole with the bathwater just yet, but there are likely to be forced changes to the side, pending the medical reports on Toner, CJ Stander and Keith Earls.

If everyone is fit, I would bring back Rob Kearney at full-back, with Robbie Henshaw inside-centre and Andrew Conway on the wing. Much though I hate admitting it, I have factored in the box-kick element guaranteed for Edinburgh.

If Stander is fit he will be in the middle of the back-row, and if not then the case for a specialist No 8 must surely point to Jack Conan, despite the temptation to play Sean O'Brien in a position in which he is clearly not at ease. I would field O'Brien at open-side, which is tough on Josh van der Flier, who was our most conspicuous back-row against the English.

Ward's line-up

Tony Ward's team to face Scotland (if everyone is passed fit): R Kearney; A Conway, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Toner (Q Roux), J Ryan; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, CJ Stander (J Conan).

Replacements: S Cronin, D Kilcoyne, A Porter, U Dillane, J Van der Flier, J Cooney, J Carbery, J Larmour.

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