Saturday, June 14, 2014




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Game of Thrones, Love/Hate, House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, Mad Men – when we rugby fans take a break from the box kicks and focus on the box sets, these are just a tiny sample of the quality offerings out there for us to enjoy.

So as the long August to June slog that is the Irish pro rugby season finally comes to a close, such shows make for an easy analogy now that we can finally cast judgement over the first definable time period of Joe Schmidt's reign as Ireland coach.

Did we enjoy all the drama that unfolded before us? Were we happy with the character development? Is the plot nicely set up for future series?

I could go on ad nauseum with these references...but tempting though that might be, I'll put a pin in them and perhaps at a future date I'll put them all up for you to stream on Netflix. For now, you get the idea.

Taking this episode match in isolation, when I compare what I was looking for with what I saw in the second test at Cancha Del Atletico, Tucumán, I have to say I was disappointed. This is what I laid out in my preview :
1, a solid 80-minute defensive display that shuts down the considerable threats posed by the Argentine backline after facing them last week, and 2, the ability to turn all the fancy white-board forged moves we used in the first quarter last week into scores so that maybe the result can be put beyond doubt relatively early so we can get some of the prospects out off the bench early.
To put it another way, I didn't want to see a repeat of the bad things from the first test, and as it turned out, I'm not sure how much more of a replica of the first test they could have produced, despite the introduction of so many from the successful Six Nations campaign.

Argentina scored the first and last tries mostly thanks to their back three, it took an age for us to turn our offensive superiority into scores, Sexton went off early – all it would have taken was an interception try and you'd be hard pressed to tell the two matches apart!

OK – maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but it definitely did not look as though we had learned too much from the previous encounter and simply plodded ahead the same way, and there was a temptation to go reaching for that oft-used quote from Albert Einstein about repetition and stupidity.

Possibly I could look to defend the display using what had to be the most annoyingly over-used expression by Sky (and trust me, that's against stiff competition) whenever they cover a rugby match in Argentina. Apparently teams who go there have to put up with a “hostile environment”. What does that even mean? Are they greeted on the pitch by a guard of honour made up of balaclava-wearing guerillas wielding kalashnikovs?

But on a more serious note...can we really look at this one 80-minute showing on its own to draw any reasonable conclusions for the Irish team?

In November 2013 just before the Guinness Series I posted another preview complete with expectations called “Joe Schmidt : The First 217 Days” in which I did a little more than calculate the time to elapse between that first game with Samoa and Saturday's second test. I also listed three areas to be re-examined at the end of that timeframe so I guess now is as good a time as any to do just that.

Here's a summary of what I was looking for...
    1. DEFENCE
Note how I didn't put “Six Nations triumph” on my wish list! But for now, let's not harp on too much on that because we've fallen into that trap of milking too much out of one successful campaign before.

On defence, things definitely have not been great for the past couple of weeks. This is not helped by using different combinations at centre. Another thing I don't want to harp on is the loss of BOD, but when it comes to the defensive end of the Irish set up it's hard to avoid...the success of our overall D depends heavily on the 12/13 axis.

Here, Joe Schmidt has two choices. Does he use the upcoming matches to try several different combinations until he finds one that works or does he nail his colours to the mast and name a dream team pairing right away? Well the second option wasn't made easy by D'Arcy missing the tour, but if a new partnership is to be forged they will need game time together.

Still...there were many merits with the duos used in this series...last week, we had Luke Marshall and Darren Cave who of course know each other well at provincial level.. This time, the pairing of Cave at 12 and McFadden at 13 had potential because they both had the versatility to swap positions. But until we settle on a combination that can put in some serious game time together, we may find that throughout the course of a game the opposition will find ways through, and the tries that this under-strength Pumas side were able to score against us highlight this need.

But overall on the defensive side, things over the ten tests since November have been pretty consistent, with the choke tackle getting us out of jail on multiple occasions. Still a work in progress though there has definitely been some progress.

As for set pieces, well what can I say other than Joe had better find a decent replacement for John Plumtree, one that Paul O'Connell can work with as efficiently. There's no doubt that this has been the cornerstone of all our success and I don't just mean the lineout/mauls either, though they have been exemplary.

Finally we come to the “definitive style” thing, and this is where I see Saturday's performance differently. Sure, we could have adapted our game to beat that particular Puma 23 and if we had done, it could have been achieved pretty handily. But should we be preparing for an Argentina side like this or for the much, much greater tests that are coming down the line?

What I have seen over the past two weeks is the next evolution of the Joe Schmidt “power play” game. It still relies heavily on the front foot ball and often when it is chucked out wide you'll see the ball trickled through from the outside channels.

But now we see an increasing reliance on either the scrum half or first receiver passing the ball back inside to where the runner, more often than not coming at pace, can either exploit a gap or suck in a swathe of defenders. And if this ploy doesn't reap instant rewards (like it did for the Zebo try), we are now going much more to the cross-field kick and it's starting to pay off.

We can't expect to try to run a style of play like this by just flicking a switch and using it in the matches that “matter”. They need to be tried in a real match situation and you can bet that Joe Schmidt & co now have laptops full to bursting with footage from every angle over the past two weeks as they hammer out the next stage of the evolution of this type of offence.

No, it did not reap the first-half rewards it should have done in either of these two tests. But to those who want to beat Joe with that stick I say this...wait and see how we get on against the Boks and Wallabies in November before you judge too harshly.

One thing I have to single out from this one match is the referee. As if I didn't have enough to slag Pascal Gaüzère about when he informs captains of the need to use “dee-see-pleen”, but now he can't tell the difference between the numbers 13, 14 and 15 when they are being communicated to him. Perhaps his perceived lack of confidence comes from the language barrier, though that's not a good enough excuse at test level.

Where Pascal really annoyed me in this match was actually in the whole area of dee-see-pleen. The final penalty count was 12 for Argentina, 6 to us and what's more a couple were waived off for our advantage so the difference should be higher. This was in no way reflected in the 1-1 tie in the yellow card column, and I am convinced Ireland would have had more points on the board with an extra man. But we can only hope that he won't feature too much in our big matches down the line.

As for impressive Irish displays on the day, well I have to say Rhys Ruddock was superb in the loose, in fact his consistent gain-line smashing almost had you saying “Seanie who?” Another who stood out was Dave Kilcoyne, in fact I was surprised to see him taken off for Jack McGrath – if he wasn't injured it would have been a good boost for him to get a full 80.

Another Munster man who has done well in the past couple of weeks is Simon Zebo. I had a critical eye on him for this tour and I reckon he has done enough to show he belongs in the setup, perhaps without exactly nailing down a starting jersey, but I'd definitely like to see him involved in November.

Last but not least we have Ian Madigan, or “The Cameo Kid” as I call him based on his displays off the bench throughout May and June. Took his try extremely well and definitely ended his rollercoaster of a season on the up. Needs to establish himself as Leinster's number one starter if his long term future is to be at 10, though I have a feeling we could be seeing him more often at 12 down the line.

What say we begin to bring this writeup, and indeed this season of writeups, to a close, shall we.

From the punditry and analysis of the experts on TV to the puns and analogies of bloggers like myself, there has been much opinion put forth about the game of rugby union on this island since the season began way back when.

Legends may have retired (by accident or design), mistakes may have been made, and most certainly we have been heavily affected by decisions made elsewhere. But when all is taken into account, I hope we can all at least agree say that overall, things are still very much on the way up.

To go back to my TV show theme, I for one have to say I'm hooked on The Joe Show and can't wait to see what happens in Season 2, though of course as we all know the big twist is set to come in the World Cup at the beginning of Season 3. Sadly I don't have any spoilers to leak to you just yet, but let's just hope it has something to do with us going at least one better than RWC2011.

In the meantime, many thanks to Joe and everyone involved in the national team, including those at Under 20 and “Emerging” levels who are having their own successes as well.

Maybe Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship, Wimbledon and - sorry but I'm not ashamed to admit it – the round-ball World Cup will keep us occupied over the summer months but I think I speak for most Irish fans when I say next August's pre-season matches cannot come quickly enough. JLP
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Also this weekend


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019