Time for a revolution?
June 26, 2012
Brian O'Driscoll shows his frustration to referee Romain Poite as the Irish are hammered by the All Blacks © Getty Images
Riddle me this. Ireland have just experienced one of the darkest days in their rugby history with furious supporters calling for the heads of players and coaches in the wake of a humiliating and record-breaking 60-0 thumping by New Zealand in Hamilton. That was their fourth loss on the bounce and, in the 17 matches Ireland have played since beating England at the end of the 2011 Six Nations, they have won only six - that is a 62% losing ratio. And, in the midst of all this despair and opprobrium, the world rankings come out and, helped primarily by Argentina losing at home to France, the Irish have suddenly moved up one place to seventh. Strange days indeed.
It is not the only conundrum arising out of Ireland's three-Test mission to Mordor at the end of a year-long World Cup season. Try this one - why was this assignment agreed to in the first place?
Look at the Scots. Brutal in the Six Nations, losing all five matches, Andy Robinson was then given a chance to re-establish himself as head coach and did so splendidly with a lovely June bonding experience - catching the Wallabies cold first up and then enjoying a couple of handy wins over Fiji and Samoa along with a bit of sunshine. Another puzzler is the realisation that, if Ireland's tour had been cut off at the final whistle of the second Test in Christchurch, it would have gone down as a productive and worthwhile experience.
Yes, they were opened up 41-10 in the opening Test in Auckland but re-gathered and refocused for the rematch in Christchurch to come within a questionable scrum decision of beating the best team in the world. Even with no victories, that would have constituted a job well done in extremely trying circumstances by head coach Declan Kidney and his assistants Les Kiss and Gert Smal.
Instead there was a third Test to be negotiated in Hamilton and, despite insisting all week that there was no thought being given to impending holidays, the Irish played like men who were mentally applying sun tan lotion as the All Blacks dismantled them with icy ruthlessness.
For a nation that professes to be 'top tier' going down 60-0 to anyone is disgraceful and it was beyond embarrassing to be Irish in the Waikato Stadium last Saturday night.
The written press area is high in the stand behind glass plates creating a strange, muted effect where the tapping of keyboards resonates more loudly than muffled crowd noise. Journalists tend to speak in hushed tones behind glass but Irish mutterings of discontent were soon accompanied by expletives and table banging as New Zealand try followed try.
By the end, the small party of travelling Irish media had been battered back into silence while chuckles and snorts of derision from their Kiwi counterparts added to the overriding sense of despair. Through the window, the All Blacks' supporters, bored by the extent of their superiority had long since begun amusing themselves with Mexican waves.
The Irish, so proud and defiant the week before, were now, officially, a laughing stock. Ireland's ability to produce big one-off performances and inability to put consistent performances together is another question to furrow brows and the answer has to lie in the realms of the psychological. For, while cutting off the tour after two Tests would have rendered it a success, you suspect that if the Irish had gone into Christchurch knowing it was their last game of the season, they would have lacked the same mental edge.
Another poser, what is Ireland's game-plan? That destruction of England's Grand Slam aspirations in 2011 appeared to lay down a template but then Australia were beaten at the World Cup in entirely different fashion and Ireland's style has been as unpredictable as their results.
Christchurch proved that the best way to take on a multi-skilled, team of the All Blacks all-round quality is to try to take the pace out of the game, play with feral ferocity in close contact and grind them down with pragmatic, channelled play.
Declan Kidney has questions to answer after their 60-0 loss to the All Blacks © PA Photos
What you do not do is try to play them at their own game, spreading the ball seemingly for the sake of it when kicking for territory is the better option and allowing New Zealand to get into that fast-paced, zippy rugby they love.
Ireland tried that in Eden Park first up and were obliterated, found an effective way to play in the second Test and then, unbelievably, abandoned it for the third Test in Hamilton. For that, the coaches stand in the dock (although the issue of on-field direction is a live one also) which brings us ultimately to the big question: is it 'time up' for Declan Kidney and his coaching team?
Kidney, Smal and Kiss have records that speak for themselves and have not suddenly turned into bad coaches. However, they have been in situ for four years and Ireland, despite significantly overhauling their squad personnel, look stale while their provinces flourish in the Heineken Cup.
Realistically, while no-one foresaw the depths it would sink to in the third Test, this trip was always on the furry side of the lollipop and the November internationals carry far more clout in terms of World Cup seeding and Six Nations readiness.
Kidney (whose contract is up at the end of that tournament) and his coaching team have earned the right to see it through but there needs to be considerable improvement in November - any echoes of the horrors of Hamilton and the curtain could swiftly come down on this up-and-down era.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September