By Tadhg Peavoy
Legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach once said: “In any sport, the best teams have consistency and chemistry.”
Consistency and chemistry: it is those two qualities that Declan Kidney’s Ireland have been searching for throughout 2012, and for the large part failed to find.
Coming into the year, morale was low in camp, and within supporters minds, as Ireland looked back on a huge missed opportunity at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, exiting 22-10 at the hands of Wales at the last eight stage, with a vigourless, dour and weak-tackling display.
Another Six Nations of disappointment
The chance for revenge against Wales came swiftly in the form of a Six Nations opener against the same opposition at Aviva Stadium. But once more Kidney v Gatland went the way of the New Zealander, with the Dragons coming out 23-21 on top.
While Ireland produced a far more passionate display in Dublin 4, then they did in their RWC quarter-final defeat at Westpac Stadium, very similar problems remained in their game, most notably particularly weak tackling and a clear inability to carve clear-cut attacking opportunities, or surprise the opposition with backline moves of originality.
However, with Rory Best and Tommy Bowe finishing off classy moves to score excellent tries and Jonathan Sexton kicking with aplomb, Ireland could have won the tie.
The most crucial moments in the game came with Wales’ Bradley Davies receiving a yellow card instead of what should have been red for a tip tackle. And Stephen Ferris also receiving a yellow card for what was deemed to be a tip tackle, but was in fact a completely legitimate tackle. That last penalty given away by Ferris cost Ireland the game.
That poor decision by referee Wayne Barnes cost Ireland a chance at a Grand Slam. But as it turned out they simply would not have been good enough in the rest of the tournament regardless.
A 42-10 win over Italy was one of the highlights of the year for Ireland as they rolled in superb tries in an elegant and exciting manner, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe (2), Tom Court and Andrew Trimble all touching down for Ireland.
However, in truth, Italy were extremely poor and the win was far too facile to be used as an assessment of where Ireland were at.
The following match, a 17-17 draw with France at Stade de France, was far more reflective of what Ireland really had in the tank.
An extremely competent first half, and two Bowe tries, had Ireland in firm control at 17-6 at half-time in Paris. But Ireland’s old frailties in defence and inability to withstand repeated phase-attacks and keep concentration levels up, once more led to them losing their lead, with Wesley Fofana being a key player in France’s comeback.
A further confidence boosting yet handy enough 32-14 win over Scotland followed, with Ireland again displaying their ability to put a weak to average team to the sword in a convincing manner. A skill which all great teams have and which has become a frequent trait of Ireland’s since the early 2000s.
Another Best try, a superb display from Rob Kearney and an improved defensive effort raised hopes that Ireland could finish the championship on a high with victory over England at Twickenham; how wrong those hopes proved to be.
The red rose strangled and choked the shamrock in west London, with the Irish scrum devoured as Mike Ross came off injured to be replaced by Tom Court at tighthead prop. The latter was proven to be out of position on the tight side and fundamentally not up to the level required at top international level at scrum time.
Ireland were massacred in the scrum, the loose, in defence, and were poor in attack. It was an atrocious performance on almost all levels and left Kidney with much to ponder, with a three-Test tour of New Zealand to come.
The ups-and-downs of touring New Zealand
Going to the Land of the Long White Cloud on the back of that chastening defeat to Stuart Lancaster’s England was always going to be tough. And the tour was a bizarre occasion.
A 29-28 defeat for an Ireland XV to the Barbarians at Kingsholm had Ireland on the back foot mentally before they even boarded the plane for the southern hemisphere and this spilled over into an unsure and poor performance in the first Test in Eden Park, with the All Blacks running out easy 42-10 winners.
But Ireland regrouped and delivered their best display of the year in the second Test at Rugby League Park. A first ever win against the giants of rugby union was never closer as Ireland lost 22-19.
There were so many positive for Ireland in defeat: superb tackling and structure, ingenuity all over the pitch, passion, commitment and team chemistry.
Dan Carter’s last-minute winning drop goal was a horrid experience for Ireland. But was nothing compared to the pain they would experience in the third Test.
A 60-0 hammering exposed Ireland all over the pitch, as England had done earlier in the year. Ireland were shown to be a team that simply could not maintain consistency of performance.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned was that a three-Test summer tour of New Zealand was just too much of a physical demand following a Rugby World Cup and Six Nations season. It will be a long time before the IRFU arranges such a tour again – if ever.
End of year Renaissance
With an eye on the 2013 Six Nations, the IRFU invited South Africa, Fiji and Argentina to Ireland to round off the season in the autumn internationals.
A 16-12 defeat to the Springboks was gutting. Ireland played much of the rugby against a depleted Springbok side and this was definitely a game that got away.
Kidney’s team failed to take their chances and control the tempo of the game, with the Boks outmuscling Ireland to secure victory.
Lack of confidence was clearly an issue for Ireland, and a result, that crucial ingredient in success, team chemistry, was once more missing.
What appeared to be a year of near disaster ended well for Ireland. Like against the Barbarians earlier in the year, again an Ireland XV was assembled, this time to face Fiji in Thomond Park, and they put on quite a show.
The South Sea Islanders were thumped 53-0 in Limerick. Tries from Craig Gilroy (3), Fergus McFadden (2), Sean Cronin, Darren Cave and Luke Marshall peppered a brave, clever and focused performance from a new-look Ireland.
That win provided a springboard for Ireland’s second best display of the year – a comprehensive 46-24 routing of Argentina.
Los Pumas came to Dublin with a handy autumn victory over Wales, and a decent performance, but defeat to a resurgent France under their belts. The ground swell of opinion was that Ireland might come a cropper.
They did the exact opposite, over-powering Argentina and also out-thinking them.
Gilroy delivered a quite astonishing full debut for Ireland with an attacking display likened to Simon Geoghegan in his pomp.
Add to that a flawless display from Jonathan Sexton, who earmarked himself as the best outhalf in Britain and Ireland on current form, and Ireland had two backs that looked like they could be key players in guiding a side to a Six Nations championship victory.
In addition, Simon Zebo gave an assured display at fullback to indicate he is the back up to Kearney that Ireland have been looking for, as well as a player who can switch to - and do damage on - the wing.
Ireland’s pack was also brilliant, with the newly found second row pairing of Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy looking like a ready-made replacement for the declining Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan.
While in the back row, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry delivered performances that the men they were standing in for, Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien, would have been proud of.
The eight scrumagged with security, and David Kilcoyne and Michael Bent got some game time as Kidney attempted to bolster his front-row options.
Add to that a try-scoring, classy display from hooker Richardt Strauss, in his second appearance in the green of Ireland, and a powerful maul and ruck.
This was the performance that seemed to be within Ireland all year.
The narrow second Test defeat to New Zealand was the highlight of the year purely because Ireland came so close to breaking new ground. But this performance was the one where the chemistry finally fell into place.
Maintaining that chemistry is the Ireland brains trust’s challenge next spring, and making sure that above all the chemistry is consistent.