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Last Updated: Monday, 26 June 2006, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Irish highs and lows
By Jim Stokes
BBC Sport

Munster's back-row forward Denis Leamy
Denis Leamy was the star man during Ireland tour Down Under
There can be no doubt that Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan will view the energy-sapping three-Test trip down under in a positive fashion. That's his style.

On the other hand, detractors of O'Sullivan will form a different point of view. Three defeats will take some explaining in some quarters.

After all, from the make-up of the tour party, and the selection for the Tests, it was clear that the trip was all about winning.

It didn't happen, with the defeat by Australia in the final outing in Perth last weekend particularly galling.

I suppose it's a matter of one's personal take ... is the jar half full or half empty? It's a case of measuring up the negatives against the positives.

Pushing New Zealand to the brink in successive Tests on their own little patch was undoubtedly a major plus.

So were the performances of Ulster flanker Neil Best, the growing influence of Gordon D'Arcy, and continuing exposure of Andrew Trimble to international rugby, although I still think he is better employed as a centre.

The overall strategy of defence coach Graham Steadman also shone brightly, particularly the offensive manner of the tackle and the steals that ensued.

Ireland, of course, are still in throes of majoring in a new style of rugby. Continuity coach Brian McLaughlin will earn some plaudits as Ireland showed some sublime off-loading skills in the three Tests, particularly for Best's try against Australia.

It's a high-risk game, and skills need to be honed to perfection. Unfortunately, Ireland are not just up to scratch - yet. But it will come.

Denis Leamy was involved in everything and he did it with superb skill, and energy throughout

The big bonus was Denis Leamy. The Munster number eight was involved in everything and he did it with superb skill, and energy throughout. A world-class performer with more to come.

The 24-year-old is a line-out option; he can run with the ball in hand with great strength and pace; he can tackle, and hard too, and can pilfer the ball on the deck like a good open-side.

He was the nucleus of a fine back-row combination with Best now likely to give Simon Easterby a run for his money next season.

Unfortunately, the plusses appear to be matched by the negatives. The scrums were a genuine mess.

For a team that thrives on first-phase, front-foot ball, Ireland were hampered to the extreme.

Surprisingly, Marcus Horan had a nightmare trip, his worst series of games since he took over from Reggie Corrigan; John Hayes, a magnificent warrior, was out on his feet at the end having played every minute of the tour, while Jerry Flannery's Six Nations fire fizzled out long before the squad hit Perth.

The Munster half-back combination of Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer were just as effective and dangerous on the tour as they were in the Six Nations.

But in takes that little bit extra in that area to see off the All Blacks and the Wallabies.

Ulster flanker Neil Best socres against Australia
Best try of the tour - Neil Best's performances were a big bonus
It's fine for the fly-half to sit in the pocket and dictate things, but you only have to watch Stephen Larkham to see how to put a bit of fizz into a three-quarter line. That's what Ireland lacked at times.

D'Arcy danced and jigged his way forward, but apart from his try against New Zealand in the first Test, skipper Brian O'Driscoll was diving up blind alleys in attack, although he was his imperious self in defence.

Ireland's back play seemed to fizzle out rather than fizz. Australia, more than New Zealand, had backs that attacked space with lightning pace in harness with enough decoy runners to send out a number of wrong signals to the defence.

In a way, Ireland's lack of Sevens experience on the world circuit could have something to do with that. But, for such a small country, the Irish just cannot afford the luxury to enter the abridged game where making space is the key ingredient.

What do Ireland have in reserve? The well still appears to be dry, as apart from one change for the final Test it was the same 15 that trotted on to the park for all three games.

Ulster loose-head Bryan Young had little opportunity to show his worth. You cannot judge on the basis of 10 minutes in Auckland and 20 minutes in Perth, the latter when Australia were at their zenith in the game.

The same could be said of scrum-half Isaac Boss, the other player capped on the tour. Yes, of course he has a slower pass than Stringer. Nobody in the world matches Stringer's jet-like service.

But Boss brings more variables to the table. He keeps the back-row honest, has strength to break tackles and has a very useful kicking game.

Kiwi Isaac Boss made his Ireland debut against the country of his birth
Isaac Boss offers Eddie O'Sullivan an alternative - if he wants it
While O'Gara and Stringer will be World Cup partners, Boss, and indeed Eoin Reddan, now offer O'Sullivan alternatives at the base of the scrum.

But it is very difficult to weigh up Ireland's senior tour to New Zealand and Australia without taking into account the A side's involvement in the Churchill Cup in North America.

To send two teams, plus an under-21 squad, around the various continents, was not easy. But at least Ireland finished off the better of the home nations.

O'Sullivan was keen to give those outside the main squad game time against quality opposition in America. That ploy appears to have paid off.

There is no doubt that O'Sullivan still has an eye on Paddy Wallace as O'Gara's back-up rather than Jeremy Staunton, and the Ulsterman did enough in America to keep those options open.

Jamie Heaslip had a fine tournament, as did Matt McCullough, as well as skipper Shane Jennings. Better to see some very competitive action in America, than travel all the way to New Zealand to sit in the stands like Tommy Bowe.

Now the senior players take a well-earned four-week break before a seasonal trip to Spala in Poland and some cryotherapy to freeze the pain away.



SEE ALSO
Australia 37-15 Ireland
24 Jun 06 |  Internationals
New Zealand 27-17 Ireland
17 Jun 06 |  Internationals
New Zealand 34-23 Ireland
10 Jun 06 |  Internationals


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