Saturday, November 16, 2013

IRELAND-15 AUSTRALIA-32

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IRLvAUS lead photo

HAVING OUR NUMBER

Ireland may have lost to tries from the 11850 boys, but the way things went it should be 999 we’re dialling.

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Analysing this match is no different to any other - it’s all about how you look at it.  If you insist on a narrow viewpoint and take the 80 minutes on their own, then it makes things very simple…neither side was at their best but Australia were a hell of a lot closer and comfortably took their chances when they came.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are those who clicked on this site to see me make excuses for the performance because it was by and large a Leinster-influenced selection.   Well, those people aren’t going to be completely disappointed, although I would dispute that interpretation of my motives.

But there is only one way to start looking back on the action and that is  by pointing out what went wrong for Ireland, and we saw glimpses of it all in the opening minute.

“No Plan B”  has been used so much by pundits you’d really think they’d have some sort of a back-up cliché to throw in there once in a while.  But when it’s so glaringly obvious that a coach has put mountains of time and effort into a given situation and then sees the opposition react accordingly, we have to go on saying it.

Screenshot_2013-11-18-10-34-30As Matt Toomua prepared to take the opening kickoff he saw Devin Toner lining up at one end of the pitch with a lifter near him, Rory Best at midfield in a similar situation for the short ball, and Paul O’Connell positioned between them (see screengrab 1).

Now of course this was an acceptable way for us to line up as the Wallaby forwards were over to that side, but when Toomua saw the set up he “called an audible” and chose instead to send the ball towards Fergus McFadden who was on his own and thus with an aggressive kick chase he was forced into a one-on-one tackle instead of the organised breakdown situation that probably would have resulted in better ball for Ireland.

Nothing actually came from that decision, but it was still an early example of just how match-ready the Aussies were despite the midweek booze-ups.

Then as Ireland got themselves back into position they won a penalty about 20m inside their own half, from which Heineken Cup hero and Lions starting 10 Jonathan Sexton planned to put the ball deep into Wallaby territory with the clock just barely ticking over the one minute mark.

The kick did not even find touch.

It is a recipe for disaster when you take a dash of an opponent who is quick to react to what you want to do and mix in a helping of your star players not doing the simple things; Ireland were fed large portions of the resulting dish all evening at the Aviva Stadium.

Of course we must address our defence, an area where Irish teams by rights should be excelling and one where we overcame these same Aussies in RWC2011. 

First and foremost I think that choosing Reddan over Murray was a mistake.  No, that does not mean our defensive lapses were entirely his fault, it’s just that with the eye-catching selection that left a Lion on the bench it showed Ewen McKenzie some of our offensive hand.

defence setupAustralia knew we’d try to avoid a kicking game so they set themselves up with a high-line defence that was hell bent on disrupting our quick ball. That’s not to say that Ireland weren’t set up to do something similar but for me the difference was in the players’ attitudes.

In screengrab 2 you see the way the two defences were lining up as the opposing 10 was receiving the ball.  Both appear to be technically correct given the position on the field but if you look closely you can see that the Irish players seem more static waiting for the tacklers to come to them while the Wallaby defenders are on the front foot and much like the kickoff, are primed to respond to what we are about to do.

In between the two scenarios above, Australia got their first try, and not long afterwards they got their second, and what hurt most about them was how similar they were.

Normally I try to avoid getting too technical with these writeups but for this match in particular I reckon it is necessary.  There’s a decent article on Rugby Resources called “Heads Up Rugby” that does exactly what it says on the tin and the Wallabies played like it had been drummed into their consciousness, here’s a sample

Dog Leg in defence - One person lagging back from the rest can be attacked. The ball carrier can attack the dog leg and look to slip in behind one of the defenders on either side of the one creating the dog leg. If they see this coming, they will have to step out of their own alignment, thus creating a hole where they were for another attacking player.

Quick thinking & execution from Quade Cooper helped find the space for Stephen Moore to break through and off-load to Nick “Honey Badger" Cummins for the first try, but on the far side of the pitch Tommy Bowe was hanging back…Shane Horgan called it “corner-flagging” but what the Wallabies saw was a gap they knew how to exploit.

Sure, they needed pinpoint offloads and Eoin Reddan over-running on the cover didn’t exactly help us either, but the fact remains, we held the door open a crack and they knew how to prise it open the rest of the way.

Screenshot_2013-11-18-07-25-27Same goes for the second try, only this time it was both O’Mahony AND Bowe falling back from the defensive line allowing the visitors more space to run at us with precision (SG3) and in Ken Bohane’s lead photo you can see man-of-the-match Mike Hooper taking full advantage.

Now here’s the thing…when Quade Cooper missed the conversion we were 3-15 down, yet by the time the halftime whistle blew, we had clawed our way back to 12-15 and the Aussies had Hooper in the bin.  What’s more, we deserved to be back in the contest.

Jonathan Sexton realised what the Aussies were doing early on.  He tried to dink the ball over into the space behind them more than once, and more than once it came off.  During that second quarter, we were actually doing a very good job of clawing our way back into the match.

The restart after we got to within three points came with the clock at 39:43, and it fell to Eoin Reddan.  Should he have simply booted the ball into touch?  I know it’s easy to say now, but I was screaming at him to do it at the time.  That doesn’t make it completely his fault that Sexton popped his hamstring moments later but the way the first half had gone I doubt anyone would have blamed him for ending the period.

I have to be careful with this next bit, because I’m questioning the ref.  No, he didn’t cost us the match by a long stretch, we took care of that ourselves. 

BUT…having shown yellow to Hooper for a deliberate foul slowing down our offence on 32m, why didn’t Chris Pollock do the same for Scott Fardy on 37, Will Genia on 52 and Stephen Moore on 60, all for pretty much the same thing?  That’s my one query on the officiating and it could have made a difference. 

Screenshot_2013-11-18-09-46-01Of course they got the Kurindrani sending off bang-on, what a stupid thing to do at that stage of the game.  Side note…though he was entitled to be pissed off, if Peter O’Mahony wants to be Ireland skipper one day he’ll need to cool his jets.  Not that the Aussies were angels on the day, as shown by Cooper on Rob Kearney.

Still, there’s no point harping on that when we continued to fail with the simple things, and fair play to young Luke Marshall for putting his hand up for mixing up the coverage that allowed Quade Cooper to go over practically unchallenged for the killer third try early in the second half.

In his (pardon the pun) defence, it was not just the Ulster centre with the errors on the day - as I have already mentioned there were plenty to go around, with even such legends as Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell playing their part when it came to our offensive efforts falling flat.

But even with all of that doom and gloom, in the 61st minute, and us “just” ten points down, we had an attacking lineout in the Wallabies 22 and if we could have gotten our lineout/maul going as we had against Samoa the week previously, there was every possibility that a result was in our reach.

Screenshot_2013-11-18-09-39-37Cue Scott Fardy.  His leap to legally disrupt the ball from O’Connell’s grasp was so perfectly timed you’d swear he’d had our lineout playbook for lunch.  Game over. 

And of course when faced with their own lineout/maul down the other end a few minutes later, we got done to us almost exactly what we did to Samoa as Hooper applied the cherry to the icing on the cake.

Was it all negative for Ireland?  Probably, but if I had to single out players who shouldn’t bear too much of the stink from this performance it would be Fergus McFadden and Ian Madigan.  I don’t really care if you think that’s my blue goggles talking…I genuinely think they played the game in a spirit similar to that which our visitors showed to a man.

Does this spell disaster for Ireland’s future?  Absolutely not.  Joe Schmidt and his team made some wrong calls, and like I said the players are accepting their (rather large) portion of the blame as well.  So it will be a week of pouring over the various systems for them, with of course much deeper technical analysis than I have shown here, and they even have an extra day before The New Invincibles come to town.

Given how our last meeting with the World Champions went, to say we’re on a “hiding to nothing” is an unfortunate turn of phrase, but it’s an accurate one. 

I certainly did not enjoy re-watching this match.  And what’s more I am certainly not relishing the prospect of watching us next week once, let alone twice.

But I do know enough about rugby that we do have to afford this new regime some time to settle.  It’s not like we’re talking about a squad which has been together since the beginning of August the way the Aussies were.  As I said before the series began, I’m reserving my judgement for the time being.

We just need to find a way to mix things up when a team has our number.  And if anyone knows how to claw a squad back from poor early season results, it’s the man at the helm right now.  JLP

PS - if you’re of a superstitious nature it may interest you to know that this is writeup number 666 in HarpinOnRugby history.

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Also this weekend

Uruguay 16 - 15 Spain

France 38 - 18 Tonga

Romania 21 - 20 Canada

Wales 40 - 6 Argentina

England 22 - 30 New Zealand

Italy 37 - 31 Fiji

Georgia 23 - 25 United States of America

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