Saturday, February 22, 2014

ENGLAND-13 IRELAND-10


CARE FULLY DOES IT
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It took me a good 24 hours to get my head into a place where I could watch this match again. 

Naturally no sports fan enjoys watching their team get beaten, but when that defeat is to England AND takes both Triple Crown and Grand Slam off the table, the disappointment increases by a multitude.

But when I finally calmed down and watched it over, the haze caused by my green goggles began to subside and it was like I was watching a different match.

I’m not sure rugby union has seen a test match that embodies what professionalism has brought to the game more than this one - it was mesmerising to watch, fascinating to analyse and ultimately immensely satisfying for the victorious England outfit and rightly so.
The contest brought together two coaching philosophies that were being tested against each other for the first time.  And with the two week gap between this round and the previous one, there was double the amount of time for pundits from all around the game to predict which way each would go.

But the thing about rugby - no scratch that - ANY team sport is that you can do all the preparation you want on training “paddocks” and look at all the DVDs you want…that only gets you to the kickoff.  Once the two strategies come together you then have 80 minutes to adapt on the fly until the day is done, and on this occasion, the team which did that better emerged the winners.

For me it’s not so much that either team did their preparation wrong as such, but it was more the mentality that was instilled in the players, particularly on the offensive side of things.

But first, let’s look at the defence.  The scoreline should tell you everything…it was both disciplined and organised by both teams.  There are many who give out about tackle stats and it’s true, often they are used out of context, but the English made a whopping 164 tackles to our 117, which is about right since Ireland enjoyed 59% of the possession.

It was almost as if despite all the English desire to turn Twickenham into a “fortress”, they were instead performing more like the away team, a zone where it seems Lancaster-led teams tend to find themselves very comfortable.

Still…Ireland were no slouches without the ball either, as the Danny Care try, which I’ll give more detail on later, demonstrated.  When England got themselves into our 22 through conventional phase-play, there was no way past the green lin.

When it comes to individual tackle counts, names like Robshaw (22), Launchbury (18) Twelvetrees (16) and Morgan (14 from the bench) stand out on the England side, with Henry, Toner and (let’s be sure and highlight this before I give out about him) Sexton leading the stats for Ireland.

Yet even with a stalemate between two defences, there are always going to be opportunities, and here is where I feel the mindset came into play.

Simply put, I believe the result came from an offence based on patience winning out against one based on faith. 

That doesn’t mean I’m saying those two coming together will always produce the same result, I’m just saying it did here.

If you study Ireland’s offence not only Saturday, but all throughout this Six Nations campaign, you will see we are still to score a try in the first half an hour of play of any match.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for most sides, but I believe it is for teams orchestrated by Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton.

In the first two rounds, we happened to be up against teams who were either unable to keep up with our game over 80 minutes or unwilling to change their own.  This time, we were faced by an England side who had clearly targeted the areas where we planned to gain superiority and if they couldn’t beat us at them, at least equal us.

Look at the way the match both started and finished, with choke tackles.  What, you mean that method Ireland used to such success against Australia, I hear you say?  Yes, that one, only in both the 1st and 80th minutes, it was England employing it to perfection.

Naturally the Irish coaching staff had been working with Sexton and the entire squad on ways of picking through the England defence, and one of these ways was via a little kick over the top or other times crossfield to the opposite winger.

This is where faith comes in.  By putting together a strict set of plays similar to that used by an NFL quarterback, you are going into a match assuming that not only will you perform every technical aspect of the move perfectly, but so will everyone around you.

Just the once, that faith was rewarded. 

Going into halftime with a duck-egg could be seen as a major blow for the Irish team, though as things turned out, being a mere 3 points down wasn’t so bad with England opting for a lineout in our 22 in the closing stages and failing to add to their early lead.

Well whatever we lacked in offensive preparation at the beginning of the first half certainly wasn’t lacking in the second.  Though not for the first time a Sexton penalty from hand failed to get deep enough into the English 22 for our famed “lineout/maul”, we still had a move up our sleeve and it was a joy to behold.

You really have to watch the try in slow-mo to appreciate everything that is going on, and not just for the try but from the lineout itself.  Orchestrating moves off a set piece is one thing, but to have schemes in place two or three phases down the line (the famed Schmidt “power play”) afterwards is raising the bar of excellence into the clouds.

Yet with Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip blocking off the likes of Launchbury and Marler, Sexton doing a dummy wraparound and Rob Kearney storming into the space and planting his foot just at the right moment, his try under the posts looked all too easy and was clearly a vindication of all the hard work put in.

Now I’m not saying that was the only decent offensive Irish contribution on the day, and it must be noted that Brian O’Driscoll had one of his best ball-carrying outings in a long time.  It’s just that apart from one try and one penalty, those advances were not turned into points.

And so it was 7-3 to Ireland.  A narrow lead it’s true, but one which Ireland’s defence was trained to bring home.  Only thing that could cost us would be our own mistakes.

Well our forwards almost made a fatal one off the restart as Billy Twelvetrees recovered it for his side immediately from Farrell’s boot.  Here is where the English offensive mentality differed to ours. 

They had a chance in the opening minutes I mentioned earlier and it didn’t quite work out.  They had other chances in the first half getting into our 22 all of which were thwarted as well…I’m not so sure if you quite call getting stymied by a well-drilled D as “leaving points on the pitch” as some pundits said, but still, it was patience they needed.

You always get the impression from a Lancaster team that they are expected to be like a coiled spring, not only ready to tackle the opposition into oblivion but also ready to pounce and make maximum hay when they see so much as a sliver of sunshine.

This is why I don’t really think Johnny May belongs in their team.  With more conviction he would have scored in the opening minutes, but that planted more doubt in his mind so that after Twelvetrees’ restart retrieval, I fully believe the corner was at May’s mercy yet after a quick look he cut back inside the the relative safety of the tackle.

A few minutes later, after a rare successful kick through from Sexton dropped in the 22, May panicked and forced it into touch off Brown to give Ireland the lineout throw.  It was our first opportunity to attempt our lineout/maul and although the English couldn’t handle it we still got a pen thanks to Lawes to put us 10-3 to the good with an even bigger lead to bring home.

But May seemed to be the only one who wasn’t signing from Lancaster’s hymnsheet.  A few minutes later, a penalty at halfway could have been kicked to the corner but England were chasing the game so Danny Care took a quick tap and although we got ourselves organised we still conceded a kickable pen under the posts.  6-10, still a good margin for Ireland.

Now here’s the awkward bit.  When you have faith in your offence, you also have faith in your key player’s ability to make the right choice in the right situation.

I’m sure Johnny Sexton had a rationale for going for a restart which his forwards could win back.  No doubt one of those rationales was faith that his boys could get the job done, especially with Devin Toner on the park.  Obviously he also would have had faith in his own ability to put the ball where it needed to be.

But sometimes, we can overthink in situations which really are alarmingly simple.  That restart should have gone deep into England’s 22, end of.  It didn’t, and sugar-coat it all you want but the match-winning try resulted directly from that error of judgement.
Of course England still had to get the try, and it was a case of their patience paying off.  It started with a positively awful scrum (we definitely laid the ghosts of 2012 to rest, for all the good it did us) which they won but saw themselves forced back towards their own 22.

Jack Nowell, who unlike May has impressed greatly in this series after a shaky start in Paris, retrieved the situation and turned it back into front foot ball.  And for just a split second, they saw before them an Irish team who thought they were going to win back the ball and instead had to regroup on defence.  Now was the time for precision, and three of Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins supplied it.

First, there was Robshaw - who quietly won the battle of the breakdown but here he was needed to carry & offload, something he did very well, though Conor Murray, who like his fellow Irish halfback seemed knackered already at this point, certainly could have done better in his challenge to prevent the offload.

Then deserving man of the match Mike Brown took a line every bit as good at Kearney the Elder’s earlier and suddenly they were in open play deep in the Irish backfield.  And not only did he have the space, he also had the support in Danny Care who had time to celebrate and place the ball down under the posts.  13-10 England.

Now we were the ones chasing the game.  And now our faith in our offence was being put to its biggest test in Joe Schmidt’s short reign.  We had a full 20 minutes, but not only did it make a difference that we badly needed a score, it also didn’t help that it was like we were playing ourselves as the defence.

For that entire final quarter, it really did look as though we had nothing left in the tank.  Fancy moves were tried but tired limbs were unable to carry them out, while it seemed England’s were good to the last as borne out by Launchbury’s excellent tap-tackle on Dave Kearney.  One of the reasons Paddy Jackson not Ian Madigan was on the bench was that it was assumed a steady hand was needed to bring home a lead rather than one to fashion something out of nothing, so that wasn’t really an option.

Was the referee a factor?  Well Farrell’s late hit on Murray and Lawes’ foul play at the maul could have been yellows, plus there was an English hand in the scrum missed which could have given us a shot at levelling it.  Also  a Johnny May touch clearance was easily outside his 22.  Of course no doubt the official missed some Irish transgressions, though I did see an Iain Henderson knockon go unnoticed towards the end.

Still, I couldn’t say I saw enough to equate the result with referee Craig Joubert.  We were unable to execute in areas we needed to while England were.  And even then, they only won by three.

Because like I said at the very start of this writeup, a night’s sleep and reflection makes you look at this result in a whole different light.  This was Lancaster’s 12th Six Nations match as coach.  He has done a wonderful job with his players, bringing players like Brown, Launchbury and Nowell from Premiership hopefuls to test regulars.

But…as he and the English media have been at pains to remind us of late, this is a team that’s “building towards RWC2015”.  And I can’t help but think that the England we saw on Saturday is pretty much the same England we’ll see in 2015.  Still a good thing for them, but not much room for change.

As for Joe Schmidt, this was but his 3rd competitive test, and his first away from home in one of the most intimidating atmospheres imaginable.  He too has an amazing squad of players, and on the same weekend he had all four of his provinces achieve impressive wins away from home.  So for a man who recovered from two slippery Septembers and one dodgy December with Leinster to bring silverware home, I can’t think of anyone better equipped to turn things around.

If we want to as Irish fans, we can bitch and moan about who should have been in the team or what they should have done on the day.

OR…we can take a look at the table, see ourselves at the top with a 3-converted try gap in the points difference column, and realise that we play next at home to Italy, and if we win that, whatever happens anywhere else, we will go to Paris with a shot at the title.

Nobody is saying it’s going to be easy, but I definitely still have faith.  JLP


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Also this weekend



P W D L PD PTS
1 IRELAND 3 2 0 1 42 4
2 ENGLAND 3 2 0 1 21 4
3 WALES 3 2 0 1 6 4
4 FRANCE 3 2 0 1 1 4
5 SCOTLAND 3 1 0 2 -41 2
6 ITALY 3 0 0 3 -29 0
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