Monday, November 13, 2006

Front Men in Tune, Time to Hear Backing Group

We have previously commented in these quarters about how the victory of the Irish rugby team over England, once the stirring, perhaps twice-a-decade prelude to long evenings of beery celebration, has, in recent, upwardly-mobile times, become somewhat routine. The same thought occurred as the Irish team strode, all businesslike, off the turf of Lansdowne Road on Saturday, the defeat of the Springboks being completed in the manner of reasonably strenuous training drill.

There was a pair of deterrents to any hoopla and ruaille buaille upon the final peeping of Paul Honiss’s whistle: the fact that this South African side was a heftily depleted one from what would be considered a full-strength Springbok XV, and indeed that which will presumably line up with the rest of rugby’s planetary elite come next September; and the reality that the defeat of a southern hemisphere giant - aside from the Fearsome Gentlemen in Black, of course - is, like the vanquishing of England, really not that big news anymore.

Still, even if we compute the Springbok team changes and new caps in our heads, multiply by a blustery November afternoon in Lansdowne, divide by the pretty much unmatched stability in the Irish squad, we still should come away relatively happy from Saturday. A major rugby nation such as South Africa can be expected to cope to a reasonable degree with challenges to their squad depth, so the crushing nature of the Irish victory remains, despite the qualifying factors, a fine day’s work.

The two Springbok tries came in the last fifteen minutes of the game (granted, as did one of Ireland’s) which suggests that Ireland eased off coming toward the line. Now, that tapering off could have been a result of fatigue from the very physical effort required to subdue the hefty Springboks so totally in the first place; those extra four stones or so in the pack had to go somewhere.

But the fact that the Irish had the fizz in their boots and brains to conjure up a valedictory try conjured from familiar Leinster loveliness - Brian O’Driscoll providing his mandatory heartbreaking moment of staggering genius with that blind, one-handed pass out to Horgan to finish down the line - suggests that it was, indeed, thrift rather than tiredness that caused Ireland to relax in the second half.

The big talking point across all the main squads during these Autumn internationals, as the calendar flicks down inexorably to the World Cup, is about depth. The All Blacks long view agenda, first set during last season’s Autumn tour, was the nurture and development of at least two fifteens that would compete for the Webb Ellis Trophy, acknowledging the high casualty rate of modern rugby as well as slyly bragging about their strength in depth.

Ireland, of course, can in no way match such depth, and the great fear is about the worrying lack of it in certain positions. One of Eddie O’Sullivan’s jobs for this series, then, is to balance the needs of winning matches, fomenting confidence and understanding within his first team and providing value for the 40,000 odd paying customers, and the need to augment his replacement ranks by trying out alternatives in a test match environment,

It stuck me while watching Ireland on Saturday, for example with O’Driscoll and Horgan’s combination for the final try or as Peter Stringer steadied the ball for an O‘Gara penalty, that this Ireland team are gelled and bound by a huge number of what must be almost telepathic relationships between players. D’Arcy and O’Driscoll, O’Driscoll and Horgan, Horgan and Dempsey, O’Gara and Stringer, O’Connell and O’Callaghan, Leamy and Wallace. Provincial team-mates all, international colleagues too.

I am reminded, when two of these players combine on the pitch, of a Rolling Stones concert when Keith Richards and Ron Wood face each other, trading riffs while smirking over some lascivious joke or other. An understanding borne of years of shared experience and professional fusion, their arts and minds entwined.

Still, when Eddie O’Sullivan talks about now having ‘elbow room’ to experiment over the remaining autumn matches, you feel he would be well-advised to use that space. And next Saturday too. There would be a lot more learned about the capabilities of Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace or Bryan Young against the Wallabies than the Pacific Islanders.

The whole of the Six Nations lies ahead to tinker with the probables of the first fifteen, who appear to be playing in delightful harmony right now.


Blogger Fence said...

O'Sullivan is in a difficult place though, if he tinkers with the team line-up and we lose to Australia he'll be criticised. If he doesn't and we win people will be wondering why he didn't experiment more.

Course if he doesn't and we still lose, then there will be real complaints. Myself I'd like to see us field pretty much the same team and win. We can experiment against the PI

4:14 p.m.  
Blogger An Seanchai said...

Yes, a couple of nice wins from our fearless warriors --

1:45 p.m.  

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