Ireland should be kicking themselves
ESPN Australia's Gordon Bray
March 14, 2011
Italy's Sergio Parisse leads the celebrations after his side beat France in Rome © Getty Images
Back to the future is now the way forward for the Emerald Army.
Ireland should be kicking themselves. Coach Declan Kidney's best laid plans back-fired. Instead of playing England in Dublin for a shot at the Championship they now find themselves relegated to potential 'Grand Slam spoilers'.
By effectively electing to keep the roof open at Millennium Stadium, Kidney ensured a greasy, unstable surface and slippery ball - conditions seemingly tailor-made for Ronan O'Gara's skilful kicking game.
Only problem is that Ireland went overboard with their 'boot mindset' and lost their sense of balance in attack. Their veteran fly-half maestro was unable to exert the necessary territorial influence and as a consequence, far too much possession was kicked away.
The Irish backs are currently more creative and dangerous than their Welsh counterparts and caused havoc out wide when they kept the ball in hand. No better example occurred than in the final foray which saw Paddy Wallace make a fatal decision to cut back inside.
The irony of Kidney's master plan is that when O'Gara was replaced after 50 minutes it was a fluffed kick by Jonathan Sexton that led to Mike Phillips' illegal try.
If the Irish coach could roll back time, consider this scenario. Firstly, agree with Welsh coach Warren Gatland to close the roof. Select the more attack-minded Jonathon Sexton to start and then utilize O'Gara's experience to close things out if required at the end.
With a firmer pitch and less influence from the elements, Kidney could have employed a more positive game-plan. Especially after his side produced such a brilliant start that clearly rattled the Welsh.
That was precisely the time to really put the foot down and exercise the same ball-in-hand urgency and skill displayed in the final minute when everything was on the line.
Instead, the ensuing mind numbing strategy to often aimlessly hoof the ball downfield into the opposition half simply played into Welsh hands.
Barring a wet pitch in Dublin this weekend, Ireland need to restore the status quo and play their Sexton card which automatically means having a real crack at England.
Once the young fly-half overcame that initial mistake, he struck the right balance between a ball-in-hand focus and tactical kicking. The Irish backs, with Peter Stringer's swift service at scrum-half, suddenly looked sharper and more dangerous.
Kidney will argue that with better execution, his strategy would have paid off especially after the clever maul pilfering of the greasy ball by his fiercely committed forwards.
It is all academic now although one thing is certain. A similar approach and the same order of player appearance are unlikely to carry the day this weekend.
Who would want to be a national coach? Frenchman Marc Lievremont finds himself balancing on the highwire, having forcibly swapped that position with Nick Mallett after Italy's inspired triumph.
Stadio Flaminio has become a minefield for visiting teams this season. Both Ireland and Wales were extremely lucky to emerge unscathed.
Italy's famous victory over France was built on three rocks. Tight-head Martin Castrogiovanni, skipper Sergio Parisse and fullback Andrea Masi. And let's also acknowledge the mental victory for Mirco Bergamasco who corrected a flawed goal-kicking technique on the run.
Castrogiovanni had a tough day in the scrum but kept turning up all over the field to lead the charge. Parisse was ever-present as the knowing and revered godfather and Masi played like a runaway bus with a jammed accelerator.
And so the final grand slam assault awaits. Very good teams can still play badly and win the big games. But only great teams can play badly and win the biggest games. England must lift and they surely will but so will Ireland.
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