Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saxons-8 Wolfhounds-14

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not burns night

NOT BURNS’ NIGHT

I may have joked about it at the time, but I can totally understand why the Sky commentators went to such great lengths to point out the gulf in experience between these two sides, even before kickoff.

Even though officially their coverage was as much for Irish viewers as it was for English, in terms of actual subscriber numbers you’re talking about an even bigger gulf between two groups of people.  So given that a losing England team could possibly trim the ratings down the line, I guess the spin was required.

But if we’re playing by those rules, I would also point out that you can count the number of times Ian Madigan, Felix Jones and Craig Gilroy have played together competitively on the fingers of one finger.  This means that we can easily explain away the English try courtesy of Anthony Watson and write up this match totally based on the two Irish-dot-downs which were backed up by a mesmerizing defensive display credited with a whopping 192 tackles by the stattos.

Obviously I’m being a little bit tongue-in-cheek with my opening remarks, but only a little bit.  The truth is that “gulf in experience” thing also applied in the same fixture last season, plus it must be noted that a feature of Saxons teams over the years has been an ability to hit the ground running in matches like this one.

One of the differences this time around has been that the whole “hitting the ground running” thing is also a feature of what I guess we will have to call “Schmidt-ball” (as opposed to “Warren-ball”, but “Joe-ball” doesn’t work for me) and on this occasion, it wasn’t perfect, but achieved the desired result.

The basis of this style of play is of course the defence.  But there’s no point in holding out the opposition for 80 minutes if you’re going to score feck all points yourselves, and given that you need players to tackle as hard in the last minute as in the first, the ideal time to put those points on the board is in the opening half hour of play, and that is precisely what the Wolfhounds did at Kingsholm.

It was our first attacking set-piece, a lineout just inside the English 22, where we struck first with just 4 minutes on the clock.  After a routine take by Dan Tuohy and a well-constructed maul, the English halfbacks Simpson and Burns were more Homer & Montgomery than Joe & Freddie in their coverage allowing Isaac Boss to sail past them and over the line.

The score remained 7-0 until the 23rd minute when Watson took full advantage of the interception I mentioned earlier…in reality there really was no excuse for the mixup among the Irish backline - Madigan perhaps put too much on his pass, or perhaps Jones could have been standing deeper, or even with all of that perhaps Gilroy could have done better.  But given how the full match went I’ll take that one error.

Because it was defence that won the day, and although the Saxons did pretty well overall themselves for albeit half the time without the ball, we were far better at cashing in on the slightest of opportunities.  Box-kicks were mostly accurate and backed up by good kick-chasing, our series of pick-and-goes at high speed in the second half would have been highlight-reel stuff if only capped off by a score, and then of course we had the opportunistic Madigan try.

I thought the issue the ref had with his tap-and-(stretch to catch and then)-go was whether or not he was taking it from the mark, but the TMO chose to just look at his touch-down and despite the presence of several defenders a combination of momentum and sheer will gave the Leinster man the score.

Meanwhile the Saxons were finding themselves thwarted again and again and again by mistakes, turnovers and a dreadful night at the office by Freddie Burns at probably the last ground he’d want to playing so poorly in an England shirt given his future club plans.  The slip out of his hands right at the death really could have happened to anyone as the conditions were atrocious, but in other ways it really did look like the script had been written for it not to be his night.

But as I suggested earlier, it wasn’t a perfect display by the Wolfhounds, and much like that match at the end of November I’d rather not have to reference anymore, it really looked like we were doing everything we could to throw it away at the death, and this area of decision-making late in tight matches could well be my biggest concern going into the Six Nations.

Jordi Murphy’s cameo didn’t get off to an ideal start as he gave away two penalties in the space of a minute, but the thing about Ireland’s defence on the day was that it was well able to withstand assaults from regular play all the way up to its own tryline, and despite some impressive carries & offloads by the Saxons late on it was Jordi who forced a key turnover on 76 minutes to allow us to clear our lines.

Maybe I’ll forgive Kieran Marmion for his box-kick at halfway as the clock read 78:30, but when the Saxons came back at us only to knock the ball on, why we didn’t just take the scrum I have absolutely no idea.  Even if we hadn’t been doing well in the tight I would have gone for the chance to kill at least a minute on the clock.

Instead we gave the ball back to them and even though they collected the ball in their own 22 with 30 seconds left, thanks to impressive subs like Miller and Dickinson they got it to a stage where but for Freddie’s butterfingers we could have snatched yet another defeat from the jaws of victory.

Still, it wasn’t to be and overall it was a performance much more full of positives for Joe Schmidt to bring forward.  Here he had a match-day 23 pretty much of all of whom seem to be buying into his brand of the game, and considering how punishing the Six Nations schedule of 5 tests in 7 weeks can be, we could well be counting on many of these guys in the near future.

Other area I disagreed with Sky was in man-of-the-match…it was a good try for Boss and he did some good things around the park, but there was the odd boo-boo that could have cost us and since it was an award that couldn’t be given collectively to our backrow who were superb at the breakdown, I’d have probably plumped for Madigan.

Did Tommy O’Donnell do enough to dislodge Chris Henry from the 7 jumper on the night?  Probably not..though in my preview I spelled out why I think he should get it anyway.  Ruddock was superb at his blindside role, maybe not so much at his captain’s one.  As for Copeland, where although I understand the argument for James Coughlan (who was himself captain for this fixture last season don’t forget) I think it was more important long-term to give the Cardiff Blue this outing and he did well with it.

One very interesting position for the Wolfhounds was 12, with Schmidt (I know technically Foley was coach but I believe he held the true reins about as much as I believe Rob Howley held the Welsh ones in the last Six Nations) trying out two men at inside centre who wouldn’t normally play there.  He is known to be creative around this position, having converted young Jordan Coghlan from flanker while at Leinster, and certainly on the defensive side of things both the 12 and 13 channels were solid throughout despite the chopping and changing.

So there we have it…the build-ups are over and it’s time to start looking ahead to The Big Show which starts next weekend.  Plenty of time for previews during the week…I’m wondering though about the point of this particular fixture down the line.  What if instead the Six Nations put out reserve teams on this weekend against the Six Nations “B” teams like Georgia and Romania? 

Just a thought, though to be thinking like that would suggest the Six Nation Unions had the best interests of pan-European rugby at heart in their “grand scheme of things”. 

Anyway, let’s just say I’m feeling good about our chances in this year’s tournament.  Though I did say pretty much the same this time last year…but don’t worry, I won’t be going all “George Hook” on you just yet.  Let’s get behind em, I say. JLP

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