Brian Ashton: Irish win sets scene for a titanic pair of North-South battles

Tackling The Issues
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ireland reignited the age-old cross-hemisphere debate between North and South last weekend with their enthralling victory over Australia.

In many ways the situation was tailor-made for them: all England players, together with England followers who understand the first thing about the game, are acutely aware that the Irish have throughout rugby history shown a remarkable ability to create and feed off chaos, to the extent that there is no more destructive team in the world in and around the tackle area.

Given that Australia are not exactly renowned for laying stable foundations at the scrum, and that David Pocock, their truly outstanding open-side flanker, was missing from the Wallaby line-up for last Saturday's contest, the men in green and gold must have anticipated a few problems, although I suspect they did not predict the scale of the issues they found themselves facing. The Irish denied the much-vaunted Aussie backs the time and space they needed to work their magic, although to my eyes there were opportunities created, notably by Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale. Had these been taken, the scoreboard might have looked significantly different at close of play.

That being said, I must award full marks to the Irish, who were not only fiercely combative but also strikingly intelligent in their use of the ball, twice running from their own 22 when it was on and almost scoring on the second occasion. This particular attack was launched by the Ronan O'Gara-Jonathan Sexton axis at 10 and 12. I'm not sure how the partnership stacks up defensively speaking, but it certainly offers something in the attacking sense.

This result has set the scene for what may well be two decisive North-South matches this weekend. Tomorrow's Argentina-Scotland fixture marks a must-win moment for the Pumas and, despite recent results between the two sides (the Scots have prevailed in three of the last four meetings), they will go into this one brimming with their customary pride and passion. Argentina rarely blow away tier-one opponents, but their particular set of virtues – strength of will, intense physicality, a generally reliable kick-chase game, unwavering defensive application – can be difficult to subdue, especially when they add the odd flash of flair, as they did against Romania seven days ago. While they will be boosted by Felipe Contepomi's return in midfield, I still expect them to stick to the things they do well: slow the tempo, engage in as many arm-wrestles as possible, contest the tackle area with ferocity and dare the opposition to counter-attack from kick receipts. When these ploys are successful, the South Americans are particularly good at punishing indiscipline by securing good field position and keeping the scoreboard moving with three-pointers.

The Scots must man up in the scrums: while there have been glimpses of improvement in this area in recent seasons, their continuing inconsistency means few people would be in a hurry to bet their mortgages on a successful set-piece operation. Equally crucial will be the pace they put on the game. The good news here is that they have a trio of back-row forwards who will ensure quick continuity of ball from the tackle. The perennial question is how effective they can be when front-foot ball is secured. For all their willingness to play with ball in hand and their clever switches of focus in attack, they still seem to come up short when technique is put under international standard pressure. And this happens often, because their lack of genuine top-class strike runners forces them to rely on multiphase attacks to create scoring opportunities.

Today's little set-to between New Zealand and France should be the most fascinating contest of the tournament so far: certainly, the French coach, Marc Lièvremont, has set everyone thinking by naming his No 9 Morgan Parra at No 10, where he will find himself confronting a rather useful opponent in Daniel Carter. Some of Lièvremont's other selections have been questioned. Is this some kind of coaching master plan, normal pool-stage player rotation or simply the bringing together of the best team to beat this particular opposition on this particular day? We shall see.

Why Parra at 10? France may be looking to play a high-tempo game by using Parra and his fellow half-back Dimitri Yachvili as interchanging No 9s in the wide channels, left and right, in a way that will expose and exploit lazy defenders who fail to fill in the short side – something at which these two players, not to say the French in general, are very adept. It could also allow them to use quick ball to send the big French forward runners rampaging close to the rucks, and as both Parra and Yachvili possess accurate kicking games capable of taking play behind the blind-side wing, their partnership could nullify what has become a well-organised All Black blanket open-side defence.

Whatever the reason for the French selection I do not see New Zealand losing this one, for they are clearly the better all-round side. I know there is history between the All Blacks and the French, and that France have fared well in World Cup contests, but I do not sense in this Tricolore side the belief and character necessary to produce another shock result. Of course, this could be my equivalent of the commentator's kiss of death, but there is an air of inconsistency about Les Bleus, even when they are playing well.

No doubt the "All Blacks are chokers" stuff has been trotted out in the build-up, but this is nothing more than tired punditry. Now is the moment for the New Zealanders to demonstrate just how tired it is, by demonstrating a ruthlessness of purpose that will change perception once and for all. They've developed a multi-purpose, all-court game ideal for a World Cup tournament. More than competent in the tight, they probably have the most effective footballing forwards away from the set-piece. Add to this an ethic of hard work in defence, Carter pulling the strings at 10 and any number of high-calibre strike runners and they have the weaponry to suit virtually every imaginable situational demand. As my old friend Bumble likes to say from the cricket commentary box: "Start the car."

Comments