Friday, February 28, 2014

…In The Chariot’s Wake

Some tough decisions ahead for Joe after Twickenham, writes Fergal Nolan…

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I’m not totally dismayed by our loss on Saturday.

We were consistent in areas of importance such as the scrum , line out and maul (when it was finally utilised). We were inconsistent in our decision making. I believe we also lacked that clinical finish which cost us the game. England deserved to win but they were moments where we had them rattled, namely in the first ten minutes of the second half. We failed to build on this and ultimately lost momentum.

As I noted in my preview, pre-planned moves direct from the training camp were clearly evident in the game. They had the Schmidt aurora about them. Great to see. My only qualm – the players were too robotic. All good when the moves materialise but the players have to get a feel for the game, and be spontaneous. This impromptu manner was somewhat lacking in the game. 

When the moves do work they can be a joy to watch. Dummy runs from a line-out provided the backs with room on the outside channels. The English defence stretched like their armed men on the fields of Wytschaete. The Irish armoury built on this in the second half. The well worked Irish try was executed to perfection. Expect to see more of these plays with a more clinical finish under Schmidt.

As in all evenly matched games, decision making is key. I alluded to this in my weekend preview. What I didn’t envisage was the governing to be off in our most important player. Johnny Sexton. If it was psychological, concussion, or tiredness, his kicking was well below par. (If Sexton was tired Jackson should have come on sooner but I believe Schmidt rates Sexton tiers above Jackson – he shouldn’t have over-reliance on one choice out half). A fly half controls the game. The polar opposite of control is chaos. I won’t say Sexton caused chaos – that’s too harsh, but you can understand my point. Cause and effect.

At the time of writing Racing Metro’s medical board have stated that Sexton will be out for ten days to six weeks. The IRFU are saying otherwise. Perhaps this is a ploy by the French to outwit Sexton into not playing against Les Bleus….This is the chance to have Jackson start against Italy (the injury has reinstated him starting) with Madigan as replacement. As I stated above, we cannot solely rely on one player in one position, others must get proper game time at this standard. Blessing in disguise?

Perhaps I’m being too critical, and maybe, just maybe this English team are that good. Evenly matched? A neutral watching the game would have said the same. They did deserve to win but they have areas to improve on just like us. Like our Welsh counterparts, the English have blooded big centres and wingers. They are extremely physical and hard to break down. This was clearly evident in the match.

We are lacking that physical touch and finesse in our back-line. We were lacking that player who can change the game. Albeit we had the upper hand in the bench but not that x-factor. The English have that flair. Mike Brown. He is England’s sweet chariot. Physical, Intelligent, Spontaneous, Skillful. I do admire him. The full back will be the player of the tournament. Conor O’Shea may have weeped as Brown pulled off those classy moves but inside he was smiling…just a little! The Irishman can be grateful to have such a player on his side.

My predictions were off in the Wooden Spoon match up. I did foresee the Welsh-France game to play the way it did although I didn’t see Wales winning by that score. French rugby is a mess and Ireland playing them for a potential Championship decider is not as daunting as it used to be. They lack structure and heart. Sheer talent spreads across the squad board but it’s not being utilised. The potential is there and I’m afraid if they do decide to turn up, they can really turn it on. For the Ireland game, Fofana will take no part. Morgan Parra will be back after his suspension (it would seem this is a regular occurrence in the Top 14 lately). He’s a dangerous half back who could inject some game management into this French side.

Schmidt will have some tough decisions in the run up to the Italian game. With a potential championship decider the week after, we need to fill the scoreboard. The Irish side need to play with ease and iron out the cracks. Schmidt needs to utilise the full squad. He has the weaponry at his disposal. Perhaps a physical Henshaw on the bench to cover 13 and 15? Bowe/Zebo to come in on the wing? Perhaps a talented Marshal in centre, alongside O’Driscoll for his last game in Ireland? Mix the old with the new. If the new generation are given time and experience, the future looks bright. Like the English team, we need to mould these players. Unlike the battle in Twickenham, we will need to provide better governing of the game. Hopefully we bring that added finesse. This time, we will not, be left, in the chariot’s wake…

Fergal is on twitter as @IrishRugbyBlog

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