Rugby Union: Irish thrive on calculated chaos

Chris Rea says that England are vulnerable to a rude awakening in Dublin
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The Independent Online
One Of Willie-John McBride's evergreen stories recalls his first international against France in Paris. It was 1962 and a few minutes before kick-off the Irish captain, Dr Bill Mulcahy, arose to deliver the final address to his troops. McBride edged forward to absorb fully the words of a man he had hero- worshipped since boyhood. "Has anyone got any ideas how to beat this lot?" Mulcahy challenged.

If, in tactical and motivational content this oration had fallen a little short of McBride's expectations, his disappointment turned to dismay when he heard some of the ideas which were offered up. Then, from the corner of the room, came the voice of Ronnie Kavanagh, a gnarled veteran of countless campaigns nearing the end of a distinguished international career. "I suggest," he said, "that we spend the next 80 minutes kicking the shit out of them." There was a deathly hush, broken by Mulcahy slapping his thigh in triumph. "Bejaysus men - we have a plan."

Over the years Irish rugby has been pretty well served by the chaos theory. It has been their most effective strategy, despite having access to cerebral power which could have moved mountains. Ray McLoughlin, the bulldozer with a brain, was blessed with a towering intellect which Carwyn James. the Lions coach, put to good use in plotting the downfall of the All Blacks in 1971. But it cut no ice with the Irish team who, in those days, were as immaculately innocent of planning as they were of training.

In the professional era the present Irish players are undeniably fitter than their predecessors, although questions have to be asked about the stamina of a side who leak so many points in the closing stages. The deep-rooted suspicion of tactical planning, however, remains. Despite the protestations of their new coaching advisor Brian Ashton, it is difficult to believe that Ireland planned their opening salvoes in Cardiff last week any more than they prepared to let slip the massive advantage they had gained.

If there had been any hint of pre-planning the Irish would surely have settled for a policy aimed at protecting their lead rather than setting off on a series of suicidal missions in an almost fatal attempt to increase it. But that's the Irish and without their unique capacity to explode and implode half a dozen times in the same match, the championship would be infinitely duller.

There is talk of the squad settling down to watch videos of England's Calcutta Cup performance and no doubt they will glean something from it, just so long as they can distinguish between tactical appreciation and tactical saturation. With a little of the former Eric Elwood would have kicked the leather off the ball in the final quarter against Wales. With an undiluted dose of the latter the Irish will lose their most powerful weapon - their innate ability to turn order into chaos.

England will not relish their trip to Dublin on Saturday. For all the glitz of the finale at Twickenham the plain truth is that for 60 minutes England were no more convincing against Scotland than against Argentina, despite their overwhelming superiority. England's command can best be gauged by the fact that Andy Gomarsall had the ball in his hands 67 times compared with Bryan Redpath's 27. That Paul Grayson received the ball on only 25 occasions should concentrate the minds of the management.

There were too many basic and unforced errors which, against the calibre of opposition provided by the Scots, went largely unpunished, but which would be meat and drink to opponents of a higher class. Quite rightly Jack Rowell praised, and took pride from, the fluency of England's late flourish. But it is one thing producing this kind of rugby when the match is already won, and quite another winning the match by it - as the All Blacks did against England in the World Cup semi-final and as Brive did to Leicester. There is no evidence to suggest that England yet have the confidence to begin at Lansdowne Road as they finished at Twickenham.

The Irish will be counting on it because the last thing they want is to have the English backs, with their superior speed, running at them from the start. Ireland's aim will be to keep the game tight, to disrupt and disorientate. Their pack is building nicely, profiting from David Corkery's belated rise to maturity and the arrival of Eric Miller as a No 8 of rare quality. If the Irish backs aren't good enough to break down a defence they are masters at the art of breaking up attacks, which is another reason why England are unlikely to venture too far without the insurance policy of a dominant pack.

Will Carling will not be allowed the time and space he was given against Scotland and so far the England backs haven't found a way of unleashing Tim Stimpson. Whatever else, the Irish know that if they are to have a chance they have to silence England big guns up front.

No doubt Ashton has a plan more sophisticated than Kavanagh's 35 years ago, but he could do worse than repeat the exhortations of the late Gordon Wood, father of Keith, in one of his famed team talks. "There are eight of us forwards and we might, if we feel like it, give the ball to the backs now and again. We will scatter their forwards to the four corners of the field and it will be utter devastation and annihilation." Whereupon Wood led his team on to the pitch to play a friendly.