Well, Ireland’s series of warm-up games has been completed, and unfortunately, it didn’t end on a high. The final game against England was probably the worst of the four. At least in the 2 games against France, Ireland had moments when they dominated the opposition and looked threatening. Not here, unfortunately. At no time in the match did Ireland ever look like breaking the English line, and most of the time Ireland had the ball, which wasn’t that often, it was used un-imaginatively. While England weren’t that much better, they still deserved the 19-9 win, and seemed to cancel out Ireland’s great performance against England earlier in the season.
While, Rob Kearney had cut lines through the opposition at full back, in his 2 games, Geordan Murphy showed none of that flair (in fact the only really good thing Murphy did during the whole game was a superb, try-saving tackle on England centre Tuilagi). Murphy used to be an exciting, inventive runner. But those days seem long gone. Tommy Bowe, playing his first game of the series was invisible. Kearney, again, in his first game back after a long lay-off had seemed itching for work. But Bowe hardly featured at all. Earls played probably his worst game in the Irish jersey. On this performance I’m almost sorry Fitzgerald didn’t get his place in the squad. He seemed completely out of his depth. Tuilagi ran through him like he was nothing, to score England’s first try. D’Arcy was another player who hardly featured, and Trimble, after been such a threatening force in his previous games, looked spent and devoid of inspiration. O’Gara did well to keep us in the game, with 3 penalties. But his work apart from that was inconsequential. Reddan was ok, but was working behind a defeated pack.
Paul O’Connell was the captain for the day, but showed none of his great leadership qualities. He obviously has experience, having captained Munster so successfully, and a Lions team (no greater achievement in these isles). But not once did I see him attacking the English players, or geeing up his own team (others might have done; he got pretty good reviews in both Irish and Sunday Times, but I didn’t see anything from him). There were long periods in the match where I forgot O’Callaghan was even playing, such was his effect on the game. Heaslip, after been one of our very best, world-class, hardly featured either. The pack, as a whole, were constantly on the back foot, and both scrum and line-out were poor. None of the players shone out, and most hardly featured at all. A very poor performance when you consider that these players are some of our best, and are playing for a chance to represent Ireland in the big games in the World Cup. The poor team performance was probably highlighted by the fact that, even with a deficit of 10 points and the clock ticking down towards the end of the game, there was still no urgency in the Irish play. As the commentators pointed out, it looked like Ireland were defending a 10-point lead, rather than chasing it. This was in stark contrast to the French game last week, when we finally turned it up a notch in the last few minutes and scored some consolation tries.
The most troubling aspect of the loss was that England hardly played that well, either. If we had lost to a superior team fine, but England were not world-beaters on the day. They probably would have struggled to defeat any of the big countries on their performance. In fact, none of the teams we’ve faced in this series have looked particularly threatening. Even France didn’t seem overly capable of scoring an upset against one of the big guns judging by their performances against us. They even stopped playing in the last few minutes of the game last week, letting us in.
All in all, a depressing end to what has been a very depressing series of matches. When you look back over the year as a whole, there have really been very few great performances by an Ireland team, and many pretty hopeless ones. The Grand Slam of 2009 seems to have occurred many years ago now. And the double Heineken cups, by both Munster and Leinster, seem to have not happened. The Irish players need to reclaim their lost form, or risk repeating the World Cup of 2007, which saw the worst Irish performances of the whole decade. These players are capable of so much more, but the worry now is that they might not believe that themselves. As we all know, Ireland plays better when they’re the underdogs, and can be great when little is expected of them. But they now run the risk of not expecting anything from themselves.
My only explanation for Ireland’s poor performance was that the players were too worried about injuries before the World Cup, and getting an injury that would knock them out of the tournament. I remember watching the Lions play Argentina, back in 2005, just before jetting off to New Zealand, where the Lions players were very quiet and seemed only interested in getting the match over with. Unfortunately their form didn’t really improve once they got to New Zealand for the tour proper. It was the same case in Ireland’s World Cup warm-up series back in 2007, where the players were lacklustre, and seemed more interested in getting through the matches unscathed. Of course, they never really played much better, either. Hopefully history won’t repeat itself for the 2011 boys, and we will see some historic Irish performances. With so many players nearing retirement, this would be the final accomplishment: to do well in a World Cup, something none of them have achieved.
If I was Declan Kidney, I would put out my best team against the U.S. and tell them to really go for it. The squad need a great performance to get them going. It won’t make the ‘Wallabies’ (Australia) overly cautious, but it will give us a badly needed boost. Unfortunately, we may end up going up against the U.S. without some of our first-choice players unavailable. While the bulk of the squad travelled to New Zealand on Tuesday, both Cian Healy and Gordon D’Arcy have had to delay their journeys because of injuries. Coupled with that is the fact that Brian O’Driscoll, Sean O’Brien and Jaimie Heaslip are also all carrying knocks of some sort. Let’s hope they are all declared fit for duty, and are fit for duty, come crunch time.
Of course the biggest loss of the England game was that of David Wallace. Wallace has been one of the true gladiators of Irish rugby for many years now, and losing him on the eve of the World Cup is horribly misfortunate. Despite the fact that he is an inspirational player (he was the only one to really challenge England last Saturday), he is also the only real open-side flanker we have in the squad. Shane Jennings of Leinster is replacing Wallace, and while good, he’s no David Wallace. Anyway, cometh the day, cometh the man. Let’s hope Jennings can really rise to the occasion.
The World Cup kicks off on the 9th September, with Ireland’s first game being against the U.S. on the 11th. Let’s hope the lads can really put in some legendary performances.