Preface : The Fabrice Muamba incident at White Hart Lane definitely put sport into perspective for everyone last Saturday. Of course it goes without saying we all wish him all the best in his fight for recovery, and we should also show our appreciation for the amazing work that is done by the paramedic services at grounds all over the world when these major events are on.
Ireland kick off, England receive in own 22, secure the ball, Dickson box kick, taken by Kearney in his own half and brings into contact. Healy runs, loses ball in turnover, though Ireland quickly get it back. Scrum untidy (Court struggling) Ireland get 2nd chance in English half. Heaslip picks & goes, then Reddan goes himself but then Ferris knocks on. From Eng scrum ball is kicked into Irish half (just). England knock it on, Irish scrum advantage, Kearney takes it, then Reddan to O'Brien, (advantage called over) to Bowe, into contact. Reddan to O'Brien again into contact, ball now at centre of halfway line. Ryan into contact. Reddan to Sexton who passes and backline passes it on laterally, Kearney drops it but it goes backwards. Ball still at half-way. Reddan does poor box kick, taken by Foden, who runs forward, passes to Croft who has clear run to line but spills it in Irish 22. From resulting scrum England win penalty which Farrell converts, score now 12-6, clock at 48m. Ireland bring on Ronan O'Gara for Gordon D'Arcy, Tomás O'Leary for Eoin Reddan, England bring on Youngs for Dickson.
What you see above is my rendition of what happened at the start of the second half of this match. The reason I have chosen to lead off with this passage is that I believe it is here where Ireland played their own part in losing a contest they were well poised to win.
Much has been made between the full-time whistle and now about England's dominance in the scrum on the afternoon. Personally, I don't think this was the reason they won on the day. I firmly believe it is very possible to be dominated in one area of play and still come out on top. Of course our front row situation needs to be looked at, but not until later when going over this match.
Ireland went in to the break only three points down, even though we enjoyed almost total domination in the first half with both possession and territory. When Tom Croft carried the ball deep into our 22 before his unfortunate spill as described above, that was the first time an Englishman had anything remotely resembling clean ball at that end of the pitch.
The problems stemmed from what we did when we had the ball. Sometimes we just plain dropped it. Other times we offloaded when we didn't need to. Other times we ran into a cul-de-sac. Other times we tried a drop goal that wasn't really on. Other times we hoofed it on the full into touch.
And although each and every one of the above was done at some stage by Gordon D'Arcy, the fact remains his team-mates did their fair share of each transgression themselves between them, with the one exception being Rob Kearney's sweet strike of a drop goal attempt which cruelly found the wrong part of the upright.
That England notched three penalty goals in the first half did not surprise me one iota, I would have bet any money on that before the off. Ireland had more than enough ball to generate their own points in the first half to negate them and flat out failed to do so.
Of course, you have to give at least some credit to the English defence for this, and throughout this Six Nations campaign they have proven a tricky side to break down. But for all the talk about our failings in the scrum, Stuart Lancaster's men did have one major weakness themselves – their inability to hold on to the ball, particularly when it was coming down from a height.
Sexton and Kearney between them were having great success with the high kicking and you might think that it had something to do with the wet conditions that England were dropping them but we were actually able to grab it ourselves most of the time. So this was clearly an area where you'd think we'd at least be looking to get back on the front foot come the second half.
And we were even given a bonus penalty right on half time thanks to a combination of Lee Dickson dicking around at the base of the ruck for the umpteenth time (will come back to that later) and Donnacha Ryan going all “Incredible Hulk” on their asses with his counter-rucking to win Sexton the chance to pull three points back.
So the lads trudged off into the Irish dressing-room, much as they had done in Paris a couple of weeks before. Maybe we didn't enjoy a lead this time, and yes, maybe we were minus the rock of our scrum, but I can only assume the coaching staff were still setting about formulating a plan to get us points on the board in the second half.
Now we go back to the opening passage. Before you see the words “Reddan does poor box kick”, Ireland had several opportunities to set themselves up for a high kick like those which made sure hay in the first half. I'm telling you, it wasn't even on their radar. Didn't look like it had even been spoken about at half time. If I were Ben Foden in the English dressing room, I'd definitely be preparing myself for that early high garryowen landing just outside my 22, but it never came.
What came instead was a hurried box-kick that fell weakly into his arms, and suddenly England were given the perfect scenario for them to launch a dangerous assault – broken play (it practically got them all their tries in Paris). Two strong bursts from Messrs Foden and Croft later they had a virtual try, with the irony of all ironies being the fact that the Englishman spilled it in our 22 rather than on or around his own.
And of course with the scrum domination playing its part, it didn't really matter who had the put in; before long Farrell is getting that crucial opening score of the half and it's 12-6 to England.
THEN guess what we go and do? We bring on O'Gara for D'Arcy, a swap we had done before to allow Sexton to play at 12. But my question is...why were we doing it then? Surely the sight of the Munster flyhalf on the pitch at the start of the second-half would have made Foden even more painfully aware of an impending aerial assault?
Now, as for Tomás O'Leary coming on for Reddan, it was just as baffling as it had been the previous week. Does Kidney feel he HAS to play with O'Gara? If not, then you could only think it was as punishment for that poor box kick, in which case that's like firing an employee for stealing and conducting interviews for his job in the local prison.
But I went in to writing this piece determined not to dwell on the contributions of D'Arcy and O'Leary, because that would imply I blame them for the result, and I don't.
Nor do I wish to blame Nigel Owens, though I have to say he made an absolute hames of the penalty try decision. Having already both warned AND punished the England scrumhalf for delaying off the base of the ruck, he clearly shouted “use it!” and then I make it 5-6 seconds he let the 5m scrum go on before awarding a penalty to the attacking side? Without indicating an advantage at any stage? Wrong call. Plus the penalty try award itself was wrong as the ball was clear of the scrum.
Though it has to be said...not only did all the evidence point to England scoring a try during that sequence eventually anyway, in all fairness they should have had one on the board already courtesy of Mr Croft. And once they had such a lead they were never going to let it go – Youngs’ try was merely icing on the cake.
So Nigel, you got it very wrong, but this Irish fan at least doesn't blame you either. He did do a good job handing the biting allegation given he didn't actually see it – it will be interesting to see how the powers that be handle it from here.
No, I'm still harping on Declan Kidney & his coaching staff. And it wasn't just about what happened on the day itself. In my SportsNews Ireland preview I mentioned the dangers of the pre-match taunts made by Stephen Ferris & Rob Kearney in interviews. Both are experienced and shouldn't have said what they did, but I still blame their coaches as the squad seemed to have as little by way of a PR plan as they did an offensive one all evening.
OK – NOW I'll mention our scrum. We have only one test-standard tighthead prop, his name is Mike Ross. The rugby adage goes “forwards decide who wins, the backs by how much”, but there's a subtext in that the tighthead decides whether the forwards get to decide.
When the French match was re-arranged all we heard was “four matches in four weeks” over and over, almost as a pre-emptive excuse for possible failure. In the most part, I don't hold water with that complaint because we're talking about professional athletes, but having read Bernard Jackman's book I'd be prepared to make an exception with the front row.
But hang on...didn't we play four matches in four weeks at the World Cup? What did we do then with our “golden tighthead”? We “rested” him the third week giving him 31 minutes when the match was already won, and although I know Scotland are certainly a much better outfit than Russia, if the schedule was such a worry, there was definitely a case for benching him then. Yet they didn't, and I'm not so sure Ross didn't go into the Twickenham encounter with the twinge that did for him in the end.
On the subject of Ireland not having anyone else to play a decent number 3, the IRFU will argue they have already dealt with this via their “succession” policy, so really all we can do is wait and see on that one.
So to summarize...yes, we lost badly at the scrums, but I still think we could have won, though as it turned out, over the full 80 minutes, the better team definitely did.
And you will notice that I have avoided any reference to the two missing Lions captains before now. Sure, our chances would have been better with one or both of them on the park, but the fact remains the coaching staff had plenty of time to compensate for their absence and I don't think they got the job done.
Without knowing what goes on in the coaching sessions I can only speculate but I have a feeling the current Irish approach is more down to a series of complicated plans and techniques than it is to an overall philosophy. This could well be the reason for some players being selected regardless of performance because new names would be required to learn the systems.
I still think the time is right for a new philosophy to be brought in now, because I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything will be different in the 2013 campaign otherwise. JLP
ALSO THIS WEEKEND
Friday, March 16
ENGLAND COUNTIES 34-16 IRISH CLUB XV
ENGLISH LEGENDS v IRISH LEGENDS
ENGLAND U20s 20-9 IRELAND U20s
If the scoreline in points doesnt give you an idea of the English domination maybe the 3-0 try count will. Irish frontline tackling was non existent literally from the kickoff and a converted try in the opening minute set the tone. Still it was only 15-6 at HT but despite having the bulk of the 2nd half possession Mike Ruddock's men couldnt turn it into points and England are champs.
Saturday, March 17
ITALY 13-6 SCOTLAND
Given the day that's in it I hope you'll forgive me for using a uniquely Irish word to describe this match: "shite". Scots spent about 5 seconds total in the opposition 22, Italy needed an extra man to cross the line for a try. Only player worth mentioning is Martin Castrogiovanni for playing his heart out, possibly his ribs too. Not sure Andy Robinson will be on the plane to Oz for the June tour.
ENGLAND 23-6 IRELAND (Women's Six Nations)
WALES 16-9 FRANCE
Hardly the pick of their displays, but recent history shows win #5 is tough to secure for a Slam, and the Welsh certainly did enough to beat a mostly disinterested French side. Cuthbert deserved the game's only try but with Warbuton once more unable to finish a match against France it was Dan Lydiate who proved a more than worthy replacement and owned the breakdown. Gatland surely Lions coach now?