Monday, March 23, 2015

SCOTLAND-10 IRELAND-40

 



Though all team sports have their proud traditions, rugby union can make a case for having more than most.
 
The Six Nations Championship itself is one.  Another is the custom whereby the losing team applauds their victors at full time.  And what I like most about that one is that it helps you come to grips with a pesky yet valuable life lesson…”you win some, you lose some”.  

Sure, there may have been one or two pressure points during a given match that could have swung the result either way but right here, right now, as the dust is settling, we’re going to accept our defeat and congratulate our opposition, knowing full well they’d have done the same for us had the result gone the other way.

What happened on Saturday was unique for any sport - for instead of two teams competing for a trophy against each other on the pitch the “old-fashioned way”, we had three of the world’s top five vying for the prize at separate venues across the continent, and we all now know how it turned out, and we all saw our blood pressures skyrocket in the process.

So the only opportunity for the rugby family to get anywhere near the tradition of post-match congratulation was through the media after Nigel Owens (finally!) blew for full-time at Twickenham.  And I have to say, it was extremely disappointing from folks in both the English and Welsh press who should know better.

For rather than taking the time to congratulate the Irish for our second Six Nations title in as many years, the spin since the drama came to an end on Saturday has been akin to a losing team turning their backs on their opponents at full-time rather than applauding.

Whether it was Brian Moore resorting to the bonus point argument, a prominent Welsh journalist (and not even Stephen Jones) picking just three Irishmen in his XV of the tournament, or my personal favourite, Mike Brown launching garryowens with toys out of his pram...this kind of reaction really sullies the noble traditions of the game.

And while all those topics I mention above (even Brown’s) are worthy of debate, worthiness is not the issue here, but timing very much is.  Discuss any of those matters a few weeks from now and I'd happily join in.  But discuss them the morning after the night before and, well, I don’t want to say sour grapes but if the cap fits...

So while I apologise for taking so long to harp on the actual match in question, I feel I have to first make a case for my overall theme.  The question for us as Irish fans is simple...are we going to accept what we’re being told about the supposedly boring style of rugby over the fifteen matches or are we going to point out instead what should be the overall premise in the rugby world right now...that Ireland were actually the worthy winners of the 2015 Six Nations Championship?

First, we’d better look at the match in Murrayfield before this “writeup” gets further away from me!  But while we did expand our game in order to chase the required points total, our performance v Scotland was a decent indicator of how we have, for the most part anyway, been able to make “Schmidt-ball” an extremely difficult style to break down.

The offload was back on our attacking menu, though it was only a side dish for our four tries, with power plays and crash ball off set pieces providing the main course pretty much every time.  And after the battering we took from the Welsh D just seven days before, you have to admire the way we clicked into our offensive mode from the off, with Captain Fantastic himself getting the opening score after just a few minutes.

Now you probably think this is going to mostly be a gush-fest.  Well, you’d probably be right.  But I’m also happy to admit where we had a bit of luck on Saturday.  Jared Payne’s red card from Jerome Garces at Ravenhill was wrong in my view.  But his challenge on Adam Ashe in the 18th minute on Saturday, ironically with the same ref, could and maybe even should have been yellow (he clearly takes him in the air after the catch); in fact, the way the Scot landed you could make a case for more.  So in my book, while there was always going to be just one winner on the day, we dodged a bullet there.

But dodge it we did and here is where Sean O’Brien clicks into full beast mode.  He was like a man trying to make up for a lot of lost time...oh, wait, that’s exactly what he was doing!   Watch his explosive burst off the lineout for our second try, for it shows you exactly what makes him a candidate for anyone’s World XV.  Low centre of gravity?  I’m starting to think Seanie’s is actually underground somewhere!!!

Even with his second, I doubt anyone else could have scored from there.  Not that a try wasn’t coming anyway at that stage, but the determination he showed to get those final few inches after the tackle was the perfect way to round off a man of the match shift from the Tullow Tank.  I wonder if the bookies are re-thinking their odds for Leinster for the remainder of the season…

In between those two five-pointers from Seanie we had one from Jared Payne...and despite what I said about his earlier challenge, nobody was happier than I was that he broke through for a score.  His centre partnership with Henshaw is not one I would have picked, nor would most...but while I’ll get to the defence later, our third try in Murrayfield, which began with a crash ball from Robbie into the 22 and ended with the so-called second-rate foreign player” finding a perfect line to break through and dot down, was a classy contribution from the pair.

But it wasn’t just our try-scoring that was impressive...so was the evolution of our strategy.  Once we hit the magic 21-point margin, we not only clicked into territory mode, but we did it with an accuracy which was back to the levels they were at in our opening three matches in this campaign.

After a first half where we struggled mostly from the sun with kicks from the centre circle, during that final quarter in particular we had both Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton (still a few placekicking yips I know but didn’t cost us and having “pwned” George Ford at the Aviva I can’t see why he isn’t hands down the comp’s top outhalf) finding the Scottish 22 with relative ease and with excellent kick chase support the home side were simply unable to hold us out.

Last, but certainly not least, we have both the bedrock of our overall success this year and the principal bugbear for the sore losers among our rivals.

Three tries conceded in five test matches.

I think that’s a stat that deserves a paragraph all on it’s own, don’t you?  One in the closing stages against France, one in Cardiff and one on Saturday in Edinburgh.  And yes, all three can be analysed to death with experienced players found wanting in each case.  But. There. Were. Just. The. Three.

Of course we would all love to see a return to the days when tries were scored like “that one” by the Baa-baas.  It’s a noble goal indeed.  But do we want to be lost in nostalgia or do we want to be realistic about how the modern game works?  Top players don’t train twice a week like their club counterparts anymore.  They spend full days just working on defensive patterns!

So when you have your test side set up (with your innovative centre pairing at the heart of it) in such a way that they know they’re going to be tough to break down, surely that’s as worthy a platform as any to win rugby matches?  And now with Joe Schmidt, Les Kiss & co enjoying a record of played 20, won 16 with it, I reckon the opposition best be finding a way to overcome it regularly (putting their own houses in order while they’re at it) rather than whining about how the game is played.

At Murrayfield we had the “blight” that is the choke tackle working with Seanie, Best, O’Connell & Murray all involved, we had strong jackling from Cian Healy forcing a key early turnover, but the piece de resistance came right near the end.

I have given much praise to Sean O’Brien in this piece and it was much deserved.  But even his display was just one of a superb all-round effort by our back row.  Peter O’Mahony was immense all around the park and has been steady all throughout the championship.  And in reserve we have had able support from Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy when required.

But what about that tackle by Jamie on Stuart Hogg towards the end?  I mean… when you hear the words “fractured vertebra” used about a player’s injury you think “months out of the game” at the very least.  You certainly don’t think “back a few weeks later, and in the 77th minute of his second match in as many weeks, prevents a certain try by dislodging the ball with one bear claw and prising it loose with the other”.

Change to bonus points all you want.  Change to 6 points scored for a try all you want.  Encourage try scoring all you want.  Whatever you do, there will always be someone like Jamie Heaslip aiming to stop you from touching down, and if you can’t appreciate the beauty in that aspect of the game, well, I just don’t know.

So let’s look back over the six contenders one final time…

Scotland should be applauded for some more enterprising rugby, and surely Vern Cotter should get a pass on the wooden spoon thing given it’s his first campaign.

Italy showed some fight in the first half against Wales but then just threw in the towel.  Calls for a relegation playoff with the winners of the Six Nations B are getting stronger and the recent results seem to be making the case stronger as well, because if it were to be brought in now then every time Scotland played Italy it would technically be a playoff in itself.

France - sacre bleu.  On Saturday they took the whole “Don’t know which France is going to show up” thing to a whole new level.  Before it meant with each match, but at Twickenham it actually meant at each breakdown!!!  Our meeting with them in the World Cup is actually the final match of the entire pool phase and I honestly can’t give you any idea how they’re going to do until it kicks off.

Wales - Did very well this week and last and nobody is taking that from them, but maybe some of their fans & journos are forgetting the tournament is decided by how you play over 5 rounds?  That loss to England in week 1 is still there and so are the 23 points they shipped at Murrayfield.

England - They should stop looking at the Scots, Italians and Nigel Owens and ask themselves how they were outplayed in Dublin, left at least 14pts on the pitch against Scotland and shipped 35 at home when points difference was crucial.  Of course there were many high points for them especially the win in Cardiff, but nobody else seems to be pointing out the low ones so it might as well be me!

And of course finally Ireland.  No, we weren’t perfect.  Yes, there is room for improvement...for me, it’s in the area of coming to grips with what’s before us if things don’t go our way in the opening quarter like in Cardiff.

But wherever we hail from, can we all please agree on one thing…

On February 6, six great rugby nations embarked on a journey.  Each one knew where it led.  They each knew how it worked.  They each knew the Laws of the Game.  And the journey’s end on March 21, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland finished top of the pile for the second year running.

Whatever anyone might say from the outside, let us as Irish fans enjoy that achievement as the monumental one it is and look ahead with eager anticipation to what lies ahead in the autumn.  Nothing is certain and there are many tough battles ahead, but we most certainly have the right people steering the ship.

And bravo of course to Tom Tierney, Niamh Briggs and all in the Irish women’s set-up for (also deservedly) making it a double success for Irish rugby - would that I had the time to become as knowledgeable about their version of the Six Nations but one thing I do know is that I enjoyed their victory over Scotland every bit as much as the men’s, if maybe with a few less palpitations!

#DidntISayWeCouldTrustJoe #ShoulderToShoulder #Champions #COYBIG 

JLP

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Also this weekend

Scotland Under-20s 17 - 10 Ireland Under-20s
Italy 20 - 61 Wales
England 55 - 35 France
Scotland Women 3-73 Ireland Women
PWDLPDPTS
IRELAND5401638
ENGLAND5401578
WALES5401538
FRANCE520324
ITALY5104-1202
SCOTLAND5005-550

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