Peter Bills: Irish errors incomprehensible in modern rugby

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No wonder Brian O’Driscoll looked the epitome of a man who had found a fiver but lost a fortune.

The Irish captain’s expression at the end of last Sunday’s Six Nations international against France could best be described as frustrated. Other, less charitable words come to mind.

One statistic alone from the blur of action in the second weekend of this season’s Championship more than merited O’Driscoll’s angst. As a percentage of errors in possession of the ball, Ireland ran up a ludicrous 37 per cent in the match against the French.

By common consent, Scotland had been simply woeful against Wales in Edinburgh the previous evening. Yet even the hapless Scots had an ‘errors in possession’ figure of only 26 per cent. That is shocking but 37 per cent? Incomprehensible, in modern day professional rugby.

The other figures from the same category are in a roughly similar, reduced region: France 20 per cent, England 19 per cent, Wales and Italy 12 per cent each (the latter presumably because they so rarely saw the ball at Twickenham).

Ireland made three line breaks off 126 passes and 10 off-loads in 88 tackles by the French. But 37 per cent errors/possession? Abysmal.

And while we’re in the field of ineptitude, how about Scotland’s total of line breaks from 199 passes against Wales? Just ONE. Backwards and forwards they went, this way and that across the field. Never straight enough to threaten a line-break and forward progress, just a constant sideways movement.

Such a philosophy is alien to the possibilities of the new game; a strange way to play modern rugby, you might think, even allowing for the excellence of the Welsh defence. No wonder Scottish coach Andy Robinson prowled and raged in his coach’s box like a lion that had missed out on its lunch.

On the day, France were surprisingly almost as inept in terms of penetrative rugby. They achieved only one line break from 152 passes; shocking by their standards and a statistic that explained their coach’s rating of his side’s performance as “four out of 10”.

That might have seemed harsh at the time, but such a figure suggests Lievremont was spot-on. Likewise Italy at Twickenham. Nick Mallett’s side managed a single line-break off 148 passes; almost as awful a scenario as that of Scotland and France.

The Twickenham rout was explained in part by England’s pace but also by their penetration. 234 passes, 15 line breaks and 17 off-loads in the tackle adds up to a very decent demonstration of the possibilities of attacking rugby achievable under the new law interpretations. OK, it was Italy and the French will offer a quite different challenge on Saturday week at Twickenham.

But don’t forget the quality rugby England played against France in Paris last March. They proved then they could play this way – now they’re confirming the point.

And if Irish fans turned down the offer of that last pint in the bar near Lansdowne Road and been in their seat promptly for the kick-off on Sunday, they would have witnessed irrefutable evidence that Ireland, just like England, do have the capacity to embrace this so-called ‘new’ game.

The first two minutes 33 seconds was a brilliant example of the modern game New Zealand insist they will continue to play – even amid the pressures of the World Cup later this year. Pace, vision, rapidly re-cycled second phase ball moved wide, swiftly and purposefully, with considerable forward momentum – this was how to take a game forward.

It proved what I’ve always believed; Ireland, like England, clearly have the players to play this way. But what followed confirmed another general belief – you cannot turn this style of game on and off, like a light switch. Your players need to play it constantly, feel comfortable with such a philosophy which demands high skill levels and immense concentration and consistency.

37 per cent errors in possession suggest most emphatically that Ireland’s rugby men have a way to go on that front.

Defeat and that crass number of mistakes represented a setback for Ireland. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Irish camp can justifiably make one case for a positive to be taken out of last weekend’s game.

At least Ireland are clearly putting their toes into the water of this ‘new’ game. It has taken some time; that much is undeniable. But starting to come to terms with it is a whole lot better than largely ignoring it, like the South Africans have done thus far at Test level.