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Declan Kidney with the Irish backs in The Mardyke yesterday.
Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Munster Front Row The Smal Difference
3 March 2009, 8:50 am
By Edward Newman
Ireland forwards coach, Gert Smal, yesterday expressed satisfaction with Ireland's improved forward unit, particularly the scrummaging of his all-Munster front row of Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery and John Hayes.
The Irish (and Munster) front row has shipped unfair criticism in the past, but in this season's Six Nations campaign, Horan, Flannery and Hayes have performed admirably, neutralising if not bettering their French, Italian and English counterparts at scrum-time.

Though Smal was reluctant to give away the secrets of Ireland's more streetwise approach in the scrum, he admitted to making just a few adjustments to this set-piece at yesterday's press conference in Jury's Hotel, Cork.

"I'm satisfied with the progress but I'm not happy yet - there are some goals we're still looking at, areas where we have to improve if we're to become a champion team," said Smal. "I'm just putting more emphasis on certain things. They're used to scrummaging in a certain way. You try to change things slowly but surely. You don't have much time with a national team - you can only change things a little bit at a time, maybe look at changing certain systems.

As Springboks' forwards coach (2004 to 2007), Smal played a major part in bringing South Africa to World Cup glory in France 14 months ago. He was brought onto Declan Kidney's coaching ticket last summer and admits to seeing many similarities between both country's approach to rugby.

Working with an Irish pack that currently contains six Munster players, he has already expressed his admiration for Paul O'Connell, describing the Heineken Cup winning captain as a "machine".

"Irish rugby is very like South Africa in that respect, a huge emphasis on forward play, that's been my experience anyway," said Smal. "What we would like to see is the guys expanding their game a little bit. We're looking at a couple of things to do that. Every game we play is a new experience for us all, especially for the coaching staff. It's good to see how the players react in different situations, and we all learn from that.

Meanwhile, manager Paul McNaughton yesterday defended Ronan O'Gara after the Munster man shipped some heavy criticism following Ireland's 14-13 win over England last weekend.

The Ireland manager put O'Gara's off-colour kicking display down to a bad day at the office. O'Gara missed four shots from six on goal but kept a cool head when nailing a vital penalty nine minutes from time. Even though England fashioned a late, converted try, O'Gara's pressure kick proved invaluable in Ireland's gritty one point win over their arch-rivals.

McNaughton described how O'Gara stood up before his team-mates in the dressingroom after a fiercely physical contest, apologising for his off-colour kicking display at GAA headquarters. However, McNaughton stood by Ireland's record points scorer, declaring it's business as usual with O'Gara as Ireland begin preparations to their next Six Nations clash with Scotland on Saturday week.

"Was it just one of those games? Absolutely," said McNaughton. "Ronan's still fit and strong. He had a bad day and he was first to stand up in the dressing-room afterwards to apologise to the guys. It's business as usual with Ronan. I don't think anybody in the management or the players have any doubt that, when we really need Ronan, he'll be there."

Ireland head coach Declan Kidney had hoped to take his squad for a training session at his alma Mater, PBC yesterday (Wednesday), but wintry conditions forced them indoors for a session at UCC's Mardyke Arena.

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