Given the performance of all the other under-dogs – and the conditions – Ireland’s first half performance was reasonable enough bar missed goalkicks.
On the day that was in it, the Americans were always going to be very gamey. They threw themselves into contact, tackling hard and competing well [if often illegally] at the breakdown. From the outset, Ireland had a massive advantage in the set pieces of scrum and lineout. Both were used in order to dominate territory, grinding the Eagles backwards in set scrums and mauls and forcing the concession of penalties. However, Jonny Sexton hadn’t brought his kicking boots with him, and failed either to punish the Americans for their misdemeanours or to reflect Irish dominance on the scoreboard.
A number of frontline kickers have struggled in the opening round. Chris Patterson went 5 from 9 against Rumania for Scotland, le Jonny went 3 from 8 for les Rosbifs and Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga went 2 from 7 for the Pumas. When you consider that the last two were kicking indoors with neither wind or rain to contend with, Sexton’s return of 2 from 5 is put somewhat in context.
Unfortunately, no matter what way you cut it, it was still a poor performance from the tee. The outhalf looked nervy throughout, far from the assured figure that commands the pitch in the Heineken Cup for Leinster. First time starter Conor Murray also had a scratchy game at scrum-half. He took the ball into contact too often for the Mole’s liking, had a couple of knock-ons at the breakdown and had a number of box-kicks blocked or half-blocked at the back of rucks. He seemed to be trying to chip over the top rather than put height on them, and as a result of the low trajectory the Americans were able to get hands to the ball.
It was the first time the halfback pair had played together, and while there didn’t seem to be any major breakdowns in communication, there’s always going to be a few teething problems. The Mole still finds it very odd that Declan Kidney doesn’t simply pick Reddan and Sexton together: it was the Reddan/Sexton axis that was at the helm for the plowing of England in March, and they play together for Leinster on a weekly basis. Keeping provincial halfback partnerships together makes a huge degree of sense. Just pick Reddan/Boss + Sexton or Murray + O’Gara to start – why does that seem to be so hard to do?
The most disappointing part of the match was the failure to truly put America away in the second half. Ireland were able to weather their purple patch at the cost of a mere three points – and every team in the world cup, no matter what their background, will have a purple patch of some degree during a game – and then came out and scored two good tries in quick succession. That should have put the game beyond serious dispute and broken the back of American resistance, but from then on the Irish pattern was disrupted and grabby. With twenty minutes to play, leading 22-3, it should have been possible to put at least another try on the board, and preferably two, but there was a distinct lack of cohesion.
This possibly came from the number of substitutes introduced, which is always a risk that accompanies the positives of fresh legs. On for the excellent Rory Best, Jerry Flannery made some bad decisions at the back of mauls, and Denis Leamy found himself at openside for the crafty Shane Jennings, a position where he’s not all that comfortable. While you can argue that it was Craig Joubert’s abdication of control at the breakdown that led to Ireland’s supply of quality ball drying up, it shouldn’t go unsaid that with no openside out there we shot ourselves in the foot.
The game wasn’t without its positives, though. Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best all had good games, and Tom Court had probably his best international performance. Shane Jennings was busy throughout, but doubtless would have liked to get his hands on the ball more. Ireland have played with David Wallace at No7 for so long [as mentioned before on the site, he hasn’t missed a Six Nations start since February 2006] and Declan Kidney has picked teams with Wallace as an openside for so long, that whoever takes over from the Garryowen legend is going to have to carve out a new role for himself.
At the moment, Ireland play a game where backrowers are expected to carry, carry, carry, primarily because both our second rows are ineffective at it, neither of our wings come inside often enough and our centres are increasingly looking old and undersized.
Since the World Cup groups were announced, a strong emphasis has been placed on the next game against Australia. A huge amount of faith has been put in the idea that we’ve been holding things back for this game – patterns, moves, set-pieces etc. – and while the Mole agrees that there’s a degree of truth in this, thinking that things will go alright on the night against an Australia team in peak form is stretching the bounds of credibility. I’ve little doubt that Ireland will put in a good effort and not disgrace themselves, but that’s not much to ask, really.
During Kidney’s tenure, there have been two games against the Wallabies: a 20-20 draw in Dublin, November 2009 and a 22-15 loss in Brisbane in June 2010. On recent results, there’s not a huge amount between the teams. On recent performances, there is.