Ireland must put the record straight
February 22, 2011
Tomas O'Leary's form has become an issue for Ireland © Getty Images
Sunday's game in Murrayfield has been described as 'un-loseable' for Declan Kidney's stuttering Ireland team.
Not in the sense that victory over Scotland is inevitable - last season's defeat in Croke Park proved that. Ireland went in as overwhelming favourites to sign off their tenancy at the ground with a Triple Crown only to be mugged by a fired-up and focused Scotland.
Rather it is the sense that, after coughing up a loss against France when basic errors and failure to play referee Dave Pearson in the tackle zone proved to be the difference, another poor result would throw Ireland's Rugby World Cup progress into disarray.
There has been a definite push for a more expansive gameplan which, against Italy, was executed before front-foot ball had been secured and, against the French, was embraced on occasions when kicks into space would have been more beneficial.
A second defeat, following the uncertain showing in Rome, would lead to calls that Kidney should cut his cloth and revert to the more pragmatic rugby which secured the Grand Slam two years ago.
The problem is that the game has changed since 2009 and the laws now favour a more free-flowing approach. Defeat to a Scottish side made up of players the Irish regularly beat in club rugby would lead to questions regarding Ireland's failure to replicate Leinster's frequently mesmerising, offloading progress to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals with a clutch of the same players. Based on player-for-player match-up, Ireland should win with a degree of comfort on Sunday but that was the scenario last season also.
It is not a question of talent, it appears to be a self-belief issue. That could be eradicated quickly with early scores, as Wales discovered on their trip to Edinburgh last time out, but if this turns into a niggly, stop-start affair, it will only play into the hands of the Scots.
Nothing breeds self-belief like winning and, if Sean Cronin had held Brian O'Driscoll's pass at the death against France, it would surely have led to the try that would have provided that missing ingredient. So, the prerogative, although it falls into obvious territory, is to win - at all costs. This plays into the hands of out-half Ronan O'Gara, a player who specialises in guiding teams over the line.
The policy since November 2009 has been to use O'Gara off the bench for Jonny Sexton, either to close out matches when Ireland are ahead or to provide an injection of energy when they are behind. The bottom line is that Kidney is in a pretty healthy position when it comes to the key play-making role.
Although Sexton is still learning his international trade and needs to improve his capacity for playing what's in front of him, in terms of when to kick and when to pass, he has having a good season while O'Gara has hit a rich vein of form for Munster and in his cameos for Ireland.
However, while out-half is a position of strength for Kidney, scrum-half has become a problem position and the decision to persevere with Tomas O'Leary despite his poor run of form and injury issues is heaping pressure on the men outside. But, perhaps the over-riding issue for Ireland has been the lack of confidence in the squad, demonstrated by their unfeasibly high unforced error count and it can be traced back to last season's loss to the Scots.
Backs coach Alan Gaffney acknowledges that confidence is an issue but says the squad are committed ot their expansive approach. Victory on Sunday would represent a turning point for this team.
"Definitely," Gaffney said. "Winning just gives you more confidence, and I think without doubt, every player to a man as far as I know, supports the way we want to play, because they're enjoying the way we're playing. We're just not getting the results because we're not executing well enough.
"If we go out there and perform the way we know we can and get that result, the confidence level will rise enormously," he added. "We have to rely on the judgement of the players, we can guide the players but they make the decisions and a lot of those are done on the spur of the moment and I'll back every decision a player makes. If we haven't got confidence in the player, we haven't got a team."
Winning on Sunday, by any means and by any score, would instantly solve a lot of issues and allow Ireland to kick-on with the confidence which has eluded them since the last time they played Scotland. It provides a certain symmetry to the occasion with Scotland book-ending a difficult period for Irish rugby. The alternative is hard to contemplate. Un-loseable? You better believe it.
© 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