Referee Craig Joubert was very apologetic as he approached Paul O’Connell to tell him he was about to ping the Irish skipper...of course he would have been well aware that this was the Irish legend’s last appearance in green before his home crowd, not to mention the match was delicately poised at 10-10 at the time.
But as he clearly explained, his assistant had noticed that a Welsh player was cleaned out by the neck, and this was one from the “hot list” of infractions that referees were to look out for, or to give the technical term, the “key focus areas”. And after all the palaver at the World Cup semifinal in 2011, I doubt the Welsh would mind actually being on the right side from this list for once.
Now we can debate whether or not Paulie had his man by the neck until the cows come home, but what I’d much rather do is look closely at the calls the referee made himself on the day, in areas where the focus apparently isn’t quite so key, yet for me played a big part in this result.
Notice I said a “big part”. I certainly don’t mean the whole part. Just because two facts exist doesn’t mean one caused the other, so if I say Joubert wasn’t Ireland friend on the day you can’t conclude that I feel he is the reason we lost. It’s a bit like saying dropping O’Driscoll from the 3rd Lions test guaranteed we’d win it ;-)
The way I saw it, the cocktail that led to this result was part Joubert, part the Welsh wanting the win more and part Ireland’s deficiencies in what should be our own “key focus areas”. So to properly analyse this match we need to look at all three ingredients, with particular attention of course to the last one given it’s the only one we can control. But I’ll harp on the other two first, beginning with the ref.
Now I’m generally very reluctant to bring the officials in to writeups, and in the early stages of watching this match live, I tried to shield myself from the tweets I was reading from Irish fans as well as the screams of those around me. It’s the green goggles, I thought - nothing wrong at all with passion from the faithful, but in all likelihood the Irish players have to be bringing about this whistle attention themselves.
Then came the call in favour of Gethin Jenkins early in the second half, as Ireland were trying to build on the momentum gained from our try after the clock went dead in the first.
I’m sorry but his foot is a mile in the air before Joubert so much as reaches for his whistle. Maybe, just maybe, he made the decision moments before Jenkins stopped supporting his own body weight (assuming he ever actually was) but if the players are meant to “present a good picture” for the refs then so should the officials and particularly from this camera angle, the decision does not look good for the South African at all.
So then as I re-watched later I looked out for earlier calls and I realised maybe the criticism was warranted at the time after all. Surely if there’s any area of focus that is key for a ref it’s consistency… and I ask you to consider these two decisions. In the first, Jordi Murphy gets himself over the ball, which actually disappears from view for a significant amount of time.
For me the ref has three choices… (a) ping Murphy for not supporting his weight (which is what we’d expect from a SH ref) (b) ping the attacking player for not releasing or (c) give the ball every chance to be made available to keep the play going. In this case, Joubert opts for (c) and actually that’s fine by me, even though the lone Welsh try gets tacked on to the end of this sequence.
Then we go to a point later in the half, and it’s a similar situation though this time the ball spills loose after the tackle and thus is actually available so we can play on.
Decision this time? Penalty to Ireland for the attacker not releasing after the tackle. A good thing at that moment of course for Irish fans, but at the same time baffling to those struggling to be objective.
But that’s enough about the ref. I’m saying he was both inconsistent and made bad calls that tended to favour red, and I have presented examples to try and back up the statements. On to the next point, which is the Welsh performance on the day.
Well there is only one starting point - Justin Tipuric. Actually as I just typed his surname I noticed it’s an anagram for what a Welshman might say when you ask what’s the best thing an openside can do to the ball after making a tackle : “Rip it, U C?”
Seriously though...the guy was everywhere, doing everything, and one of the easiest MotM decisions a pundit will have to make. Scoring one try, preventing another, selling Jordi Murphy down the river with a block one minute, obstructing mauls the next and of course there was the good old fashioned breakdown belligerence...at one point poor James King forced a good turnover yet the cameraman still went to Tipuric (who in fairness also played a part).
If you ask me, and I know the majority of Welsh fans won’t when it comes to their squad selection, I’d say this performance on foreign soil against such quality opposition (we still are, you know) should put him in the frame for a starting role at RWC2015. And who says it has to be him OR Sam? Can you imagine a breakdown battle Tipuric/Warburton v Hooper/Pocock at Twickenham on October 10? Wowza.
But it wasn’t merely Justin’s display - overall the Welsh were fired up and if nothing else, in our two meetings with them in this series they have presented us with two extremes of opposition performance, both of which we need to experience dealing with at the World Cup.
It wasn’t just the dogged determination on defence that was giving them the edge...there was an extra spring in their step for line speed, there were little extras around the breakdown area like the ball carrier grabbing a jackler’s foot after releasing the ball, all adding up to doing what anyone hoping to take down Schmidt-ball is bound to do...deny by frustrating at every turn.
Yet while of course the Welsh fans, press and coaching staff will be gushing over a second victory over their Celtic cousins in this calendar year, I wonder is the garden necessarily as rosy as it should be?
Considering the preseason emphasis was put on fitness levels of “ironman” proportions, they certainly didn’t look too clever at the end of either half on Saturday, particularly at lineouts, and could well have lost the match. But before the fire-breathing dragon keyboard warriors come to get me, let there be no doubt the right team won over the 80 minutes!!!
OK - time to finally look at Ireland’s side of the equation, and here the starting point has to be at halfback. Pretty much everything we hope to do at the World Cup is set around the Murray/Sexton axis performing to the levels they have shown they can do, which has made them one of the top pairings in the world.
But on this occasion, after a sweet wraparound move in the opening sequence promised so much, what followed for the rest of their shift was flat to say the very least. Now - that observation needs to come with a massive asterisk...if we plan to kick away as much ball at the World Cup as we did on Saturday then we may as well not show up or the results could well be of 2007 proportions.
Yet we all know that can’t be the case. It had to be against the very nature of Sexton’s DNA to risk wasting so much possession with his numerous dinks, high balls and crossfield kicks but clearly we are playing the long game from a tactical standpoint and any new set plays by the backline are no doubt still locked in a vault deep under Carton House.
Still, when it came to those very dinks, high balls and crossfield kicks, a bit of aul’ accuracy wouldn’t have gone astray, especially given that is very much one of our “key focus areas” going into the campaign, and in such a low-scoring affair just one of those kicks paying off could have swung the match in our favour. If nothing else it gives Johnny plenty of footage to pour over so that assuming we go to the kicks more sparingly down the line, when we do he might be better prepared.
I mean it was pretty obvious that the mindset was to kick first and ask questions afterwards. How else would you explain Paddy Jackson persisting with a DG attempt late in the contest despite two Welsh man-mountains in AWJ and Charteris bearing down on him!!! I’m happy to give the Ulsterman the benefit of the doubt in that case, though still when you add his cameo to Madigan’s outing last week ,you have to wonder has the Leinster man edged his nose in front in the pecking order.
Elsewhere in the backline we saw the bulk of the positive displays for Ireland...the Kearney brothers did well under the high ball and Dave showed just why his game is pretty much the textbook version for an ideal Schmidt winger.
And when it comes to Schmidt centres, both Henshaw and Fitzgerald did pretty well in their roles with the Connacht man doing the better though both quietly went about their business making a solid 17 tackles between them.
Last but not least in the backs there’s Keith Earls...fingers crossed for him on the injury front; his exit from the action did not look good. Didn’t have the best of starts to the match with the ball but given one of the biggest marks against him his D he most certainly chipped in with a couple of key tackles before he went off.
In the pack, if it was fitting that Tipuric got the lone Welsh try, it was equally so that ours went to Iain “New Willie John McBride” Henderson. All you can say after his display is “Devin, look out!”. The Leinster giant needs a flawless 60+ minutes of lineout calling and no mistakes at Twickers next week to even hope that his starting berth is safe, and even then it won’t be.
What I like most about Henderson is his attitude...whenever he gets involved you don’t just expect the basics, you expect something exceptional. And as we pummelled the Welsh line after the clock went red at the end of the first half, his carry had the air of “OK enough of this nonsense lads, I’m going over!” about it, and you know what, he did. Oh, and he was also our top tackler on the day, don’t you know.
Our set pieces had their ups and down...you have to be concerned about two “whip wheel” penalties - Jack McGrath had a decent day about the park in the loose but while rumours of Healy’s fitness persist we can’t be having any issues in our front row so whether it’s something he’s doing wrong or something being done to him, Messrs Easterby & Feek need to sort it pronto.
The back row was a tough area for us on the day given the Welsh 7 was playing out of his skin, yet when we go up against the Dusautoirs and Picamoles of this world we should expect no less so our lads will have to up their game. This wasn’t Jordi’s best outing and while I know Joe likes him he surely has to be leaning more towards Chris Henry & Donncha Ryan for the bench role and I’d expect the two to feature against the English next week.
So to recap...we were definitely below par from both accuracy and decision-making perspectives, we got some game time against a team that was both fired up and well-prepared to beat us and we were up against a finicky ref who couldn’t seem to make up his mind how to police the breakdown.
Yet despite all of that, had Sean Cronin fallen at a different angle in the last play of the game, we would have won. If you assume that everything that went wrong on our side of the ledger is very much fixable, then you certainly can’t see this result as a blow to our World Cup chances in any way, shape or form, at least I don’t anyway.
When it comes to the actual selection of the 31 names for “the plane”, I know I said in my preview we need to “trust Joe” and I still feel that is the case, but I couldn’t resist scribbling down my own list anyway. Then I saw a certain Brian G O’Driscoll had scribbled down the exact same list of names himself! I considered changing one name but that would have only been for the sake of it. Let’s say if Keith Earls gets the news he’s dreading, the spot should go to Trimble IMO.
But whatever happens, we can only look for positives from Saturday and they most definitely are there. When the “Big Show” comes around we have to be ready for dodgy decisions and dogged defending but (beware - very-rarely used cliche by this author approaching) “at the end of the day” it’s about managing what you can control.
I still believe we have the right bunch of lads at the helm to bring us forward, not least of which is Paulie - I sincerely hope he enjoyed his farewell from the home crowd and now he can move on for the big task ahead across the water.
Roll on Twickers next week. I hear all is not so rosy in their garden either this weather. Should make for quite the occasion. JLP
#COYBIG #ShoulderToShoulder #4ProudProvinces #TrustJoe