Monday, February 16, 2015



Carton House Hotel is more than a training facility for this Ireland’s a think tank.

Now that may look like a moot point - anywhere a sports team spends a lot of time to prepare could be called that but it seems in the Joe Schmidt era it is being taken to the next level.  Getting to wear the green jersey these days is as much about time spent there as it is about provincial form.

And what’s ironic about this is that Joe spent so much time in France, where the coaching philosophy is way over the other side of the spectrum.  There they tend to trust ability over learning...put the right guy in the right position and he’ll know what to do on the day.

There’s a lot to be said for both mindsets, and perhaps the best way to go is to have a bit from each column, but now that the two have come head-to-head twice it really does seem that Joe’s methods are going a long way to banish the hex the French seem to have had over us in recent years, which of course bodes well for our big World Cup in October at the Millenium Stadium.

Back in September I had the privilege of visiting Carton House for the launch of the Canterbury Irish rugby jersey and one of the many highlights of the day was when we got to watch a training session.  At one point Joe took selected players into a side group for a dedicated clinic on dealing with restarts.

Now don’t worry, I’m not about to give away any trade secrets - in fact, if there were any to be seen on the day they would have sailed over my head - but for me those drills were more about Joe’s hunger for his side to have possession than they were about a specific aspect of the game.  And this was very evident in his side on Saturday evening at the Aviva Stadium.

When you look at the scoreline from this match, you’d be forgiven for thinking it went a similar way to France’s win over Scotland the week before, when the visitors also got the game’s only try and could have gotten more had they not made more errors with the ball.  Well, the reality for this match was far from that as if anyone was making costly mistakes it was Ireland, but while our blood pressure could have done without those nerve-wracking final few minutes, it thankfully wasn't enough to cost us.

But before we talk about points we might have left behind, let us first look at those we got, and for me this had a lot to do with the time spent at Carton House concocting ways to get the ball back after restarts, garryowens and box kicks.  This performance by Ireland in this area was, particularly in the first half, a masterclass in that area.

You can gauge the effectiveness of a kick chase by the spot where the first tackle is made, and when the French were lucky, this would come as the player caught the ball, but even if he had a fraction of a second to get a pass away before getting crunched, there would invariably be other green jerseys to take care of the receiver so they would find themselves even further on the back foot.

It was this effectiveness which helped us to a whopping 60+% in both territory and possession in the first half, and with that advantage we built a 12-6 halftime lead.  It could have been more had we found a way through the French defence but I am slowly but surely coming around to accepting that early tries are not considered crucial to what is to all intents and purposes an 80-minute game-plan from the Irish setup.

And of course no game-plan is worth its salt without a defensive strategy, and for the first forty minutes this was working as well as ever for us, with my man of the match Robbie Henshaw at the forefront.  He lead the way with 16 tackles and his partnership with Payne seems to be getting stronger by the match, at least when it comes to, strange though it may seem when you’re talking about backs, their “unseen work”.

France’s scoring was limited to just the two penalties in the first half, and even at that the second one was debatable as Rory Best clearly did what the ref told him to do at the breakdown only to be pinged anyway (more on the ref later).  So despite the margin at the interval being less than a converted try, the Irish dressing room had to be the more confident one.

The restart practice paid off right off the bat in the second period as Tommy Bowe patted it back to the onrushing Payne and we had the ball back again.  But then the errors began.

I hope my choice of Henshaw as MotM doesn’t suggest that I have anything against the actual winner Johnny Sexton, because naturally he kicked 15 of our 18 points and a lot of that first half dominance was down to him.  But at the start of the second period he’ll be the first to admit that he had a couple of yips with an overcooked kick out on the full followed by another blocked in a dangerous position (when we were fortunate that Mike Ross was late getting back into position!).

And it certainly didn't help his cause that his noggin kept finding that of Mathieu Bastareaud.  I don’t plan on running head first into a bowling ball at any stage of my life, but particularly for an outhalf you have to give Sexton credit for being so unflinching when the beast of Frenchman is hurtling towards him, especially given they have history.

So when their clash on the 44 minute mark drew blood, a combination of concussion being (quite rightly) to the forefront these days and his 12-week layoff meant the protocols had to be observed, so Ian Madigan replaced him for what at the time was an indefinite spell.  That was a nervy stage for us, but I have to say the cameo went well for him, particularly the high-pressure placekick he slotted to stretch our lead to nine points.

Just before Madigan took that kick, we had a good camera angle from behind three French subs wearing 16, 17 & 18 ready to come on.  Phillipe Saint André had decided to mix things up by replacing his entire front row and as it turned out this was to help the visitors begin to claw their way back towards the end.  But not before what should have been the game’s most defining moment.

I had to watch the replay of the maul several times before I could see why Jamie Heaslip was wincing, mostly because my attention was drawn to Pascal Pape’s arm going around our No8’s neck, so I suppose I can forgive referee Wayne Barnes for not noticing it in live play even though he was facing the maul at the time.

But there’s one angle in particular where you can clearly see Pape’s knee crush Jamie’s vertebra and for the life of me I cannot fathom how Barnes could possibly cite the transgression having seen the replay and NOT issue a red card.  Wayne has been an especially frustrating ref for Irish fans over the years - I wouldn't be his harshest critic but he really does tend to over-micromanage games.

(UPDATE at 12:30pm - Pascal Pape has been cited with a hearing to come this week)

Yet yellow it was to be and it was during that ten-minute spell where the momentum for the match started to drift away from us, though thankfully never too far.  

Much as in Rome a week before, the extra man afforded our offence, led once again by the cleared-by-protocols Sexton, the space to create better try-scoring chances, and with our first attempt we had it on a plate as our starting 10 had Payne on his shoulder and both Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo deep with the try-line gaping.

Sexton’s choice was relatively simple...fizz it to one of his back three,  pop it to Payne, or an alternative I don’t see anyone suggesting - take it to the line himself (has worked several times for him before on big occasions even with defenders in his way).  That he fizzed his pass at Payne’s chin suggests to me he was caught in at least two minds...I won’t go as far as to say this had anything to do with the bangs to the head, more than he was perhaps over eager to make something happen.  Either way, it was a blown opportunity.

That knockon led to a scrum, and here Mike Ross’ technique attracted the attention of the referee, and what’s more it did again a few minutes later further down the pitch.  Whether the calls were right or wrong, added to the botched try chance this meant a significant amount sin bin clock, before we wound it down to zero ourselves.

Rory Best is a senior player in the Irish squad and he has captained both province and country, so when Joe Schmidt reports that the Ulsterman did not intend to trip Dusautoir as he was on the deck at a ruck, we have to believe him.  But what’s for certain is that the replay certainly LOOKS like it was intentional, and on this one occasion we cannot fault the referee for producing yellow.

When Sean O’Brien volunteered to take a lineout shortly afterwards only to fire the ball over everyone, it looked like the wheels could well come off our day.  But luckily for us it took Saint André a long time to realise that Rory Kockott wasn't working for him as scrum-half (though it seems Jeremy Guscott disagrees) and although we won another penalty shortly after Morgan Parra took to the pitch, his introduction was the final piece to the puzzle they needed to threaten us.

The lone French try may have come against 14 Irishmen (right at the very last second of Best's sinbinning) but with our defence in it's typically stubborn mood you have to say it was an impressive one.  Parra was lightning quick at the breakdown, and what’s more he was urging his team-mates to get into position at every the replacement front rowers Kayser & Debaty were heavily involved in their march up the field with some innovative offloading before the massive lock Romain Taofifenua got the ball over the line.

Camille Lopez missed the conversion, but the French were within seven and a draw would have been as disappointing as a defeat on several different levels for Irish fans, so the nerves were definitely jangling for the final ten minutes.

Just for a moment I’m going to skip ahead to the final whistle.  We got the seven-point win, and in actual fact with 15 defenders on the park we were relatively comfortable.  It didn't seem like that watching it the first time, but it certainly did the second.

One person who wasn't comfortable was Wayne Barnes, whose head looked like it was going to explode with some of his decisions at the breakdown.  One time I had sympathy for him was when he awarded a scrum to France as the home crowd thought we’d get a pen - he applied the Laws correctly in my book.   France had the ball and the ref blocked an Irish tackler so play can’t go on but possession doesn't change hands.

But on other calls you could really see him struggling to make a decision at such a tense stage of the match.  A penalty was no good to the visitors at that point so I’m wondering if he saw some things he thought were yellow-worthy and went against his “better” judgement by not acting on it?  I guess we’ll never know.

In the end we had Simon Zebo & Sean O’Brien hauling Remi Tales into touch to win the day.  It was closer than it should have been and just the one try would have been nice, but as I have harped on before, the Six Nations may have a “round robin” format but every match is more like a cup final and we certainly deserved to come out on top.

Some individual displays I haven’t mentioned...I saw some criticism of Simon Zebo about the internet for “not passing”.  This has always been a feature of his game I’ll grant you but I’m not so sure that’s why Joe was reluctant to pick him 12 months ago.  His overall approach of late suggests he has come around to drinking the Carton House Kool Aid and while the likes of Trimble, McFadden and Dave Kearney all have claims to the jersey, I wouldn't be inclined to change a winning team based on this display.

The efforts of our locks O’Connell and Toner cannot be ignored either...27 tackles between them and a steady enough lineout platform makes them hard to drop no matter how much Iain Henderson snaps at their heels.

But as I have said before and I will say many times in the future, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland is about the team effort and though events didn't exactly help us stay on message throughout, the net result was a second win in a row, both in this year’s Six Nations and over the French, and neither can be sneezed at.  

So what next?  While this victory came on Valentine’s Day, we still have a delivery of 23 red roses to look forward to on March the 1st.  Joe has over two weeks to assemble his squad & fellow coaches at Carton House, and there’s every reason to believe they’ll get their heads together to produce the right result.  

#TrustJoe #ShoulderToShoulder JLP

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Also this weekend


Ireland Under-20s 37 - 20 France Under-20s


Friday, February 27

Ireland U20s v England U20s, Donnybrook, 7:05pm

Ireland Women v England Women, Ashbourne RFC, 7:30pm

Saturday, February 28

Scotland v Italy, Murrayfield, 2:30pm

France v Wales, Stade de France, 5pm

Sunday, March 1

Ireland v England, Aviva Stadium, 3pm

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