Monday, August 17, 2015


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sophomore slump

logo post greenOne of the themes I like to harp on is context.  Most things in life need it before we can react to them, but rugby union is an area where it matters more than most.

Say you knew nothing about this match, not even the score, and simply watched highlights featuring Ireland’s four tries.  A comprehensive display by the double Six Nations Champions, you’d think.  Some were clinical and some were magical but they were all impressive scores by this patchwork Ireland side.

But then you see the scoreline.  28-22?  Man, that’s pretty close.  Best look at the action myself and see what happened...maybe check out Scotland’s three tries?

Wow - falling off tackles all over the place!  Not so good for Ireland...I mean come on, it’s Scotland - wooden-spoonists from the last Six Nations, that can’t be good for Joe Schmidt’s plans at all!

Again we need the context.  This wasn’t the Scotland we comprehensively beat in March on the way to retaining our crown. 

This was the Scotland which not only has a quality coach well able to fix what went wrong during that campaign and get his squad ready for a difficult World Cup pool, but also it’s a team which is full of players that between March and now finally (and deservedly of course) tasted championship-winning success.

They came to Dublin to play, they came ready to make the most of mistakes and banish their reputation of difficulty in try-scoring, and what’s most important, they came very well-drilled when it came to carrying the ball into contact in such a way as to minimize the ability of Irish defenders to do what they have gotten used to doing.

All of the above needs to be put out there and underlined before being too critical.  The Scots asked us questions, and despite falling behind on the scoreboard three times, we were able to answer.  In my early thoughts on our RWC chances I pointed out that reacting to fourth-quarter adversity was something we needed to work on and if nothing else, this match definitely gave us that and was a worthwhile exercise in our plans.

Of course as an overall performance it wasn’t ideal, especially when you compare it to the dizzy heights of last week.  And the biggest difference between the two displays was that while in Cardiff what made us so dominant was the team effort, this time around the right things were being attempted for the most part but individuals just weren’t able to execute them with the accuracy required for a realistic shot at #RWC2015.

Which means that while I normally don’t do my writeups this way, it’s one of those matches that is probably best approached by taking the boys in green one by one to see how they went.

15. Simon Zebo

Curse you, Alan Quinlan!  Making me disagree with a Munster nominee for man-of-the-match for a second week in a row!

Now don’t get me wrong - he played very well especially under the high ball and was good for his try, but a key component of “Schmidt-ball” is that the back three works together as a unit and whether it’s that they’re all from different provinces or not, the starting trio here were not on the same page at all.

14. Tommy Bowe

See above re - the our back three.  Last week when the ball got out to the widest channel all was as it should be...the right decision was made re : running into contact/kicking forward etc and the right levels of support were there.  This time it was like they only met each other that morning.  A quiet day at the office for Bowe - I still think he’s the front runner for the 14 jumper though.

13 Jared Payne

Quietly got about his business and while I didn’t really notice him as the match was happening live, I’m surprised more people aren’t talking up his display having seen it again.  When missed tackles are the principal strike mark against your team, you certainly can’t ignore someone who put in an 80-minute shift making a dozen tackles and missing none, especially when he’s got 13 on his back.  His last one stopped the Scotland attack that threatened to pinch victory at the end.

12 Gordon D’Arcy

Lamont smokes Darce on insideSigh.  This was an occasion meant in part to mark his contributions to Irish rugby, which stretches all the way back into the last millennium.  And when he burst onto the scene making the 12 jersey his own, it wasn’t as many suggest that he relied too much on his fellow centre outside him (BOD himself would say it was the other way round) it was more that the jersey WAS his own and attack plans were built around his strengths.

Now we are blessed with other options and if there is any area of the pitch where accuracy is a must for Schmidt-ball it’s in the centre positions.  Darce put himself about but at times was found just a step off the pace not least when smoked on his inside by Sean Lamont ahead of the Horne try (though Conan’s body position presentation didn’t help).

11 Luke Fitzgerald

The final piece of the puzzling back-three combo on the day.  Like Zebo, while he did get his name on the scoresheet it was in many ways thanks to his outhalf putting it on a plate for him.  Got sucked into the tackle for the first Scottish try though I’m not sure he had a choice...but for the third try you can definitely trace the move back to Luke’s failure to find touch trying to get too much out of a routine clearance kick.

10 Ian Madigan

Madigan pinpoint crossfieldIn my preview I wondered just how long a shift the “Mad-Dog” would get and just how much we’d be able to read into the timing of (what I thought was) his inevitable replacement by Paddy Jackson.  In the end the Ulsterman only came on for Zebo’s cramp and I wonder if he was meant to be used at all.

Of course Ian will know it wasn’t all perfect...a botched restart after Scotland’s first try plus a missed penalty which would have put the result beyond doubt (Mark Robson’s commentator’s curse ahead of the kick didn’t help ““Ian Madigan 100% today and really standing up and shouting in the face to Joe Schmidt”).

But when our D let us down and the Scots pinched the lead, while we had shown throughout the match that we were able to create opportunities in their 22, we needed some creativity to provide the final piece of the jigsaw and with crisp inside passes to Dave Kearney and Zebo for our third try then a pinpoint crossfield kick to Luke for the fourth, Madigan sure came up trumps.

Let’s just say that before this match I assumed that if Sexton got injured Jackson was a definite I’m not so sure.

9 Isaac Boss

Isaac’s Ireland career isn’t nearly as distinguished as Darcy’s but he does have some eye-catching facts on his Irish rugby resume in 100+ appearances for two provinces.  On this occasion, a bit like Darce, he was below the standard required in key areas, particularly box-kicks.  Simply put, if Conor Murray was on the park, at least one of the three Scottish tries wouldn’t have happened, if not more.

1 Dave Kilcoyne

Definitely put himself in the frame...he plays the game with an attitude very similar to Cian Healy, with the difference between them probably being the extra bit of swagger that comes with so much more trophy success.  “Killer’s” extra shove on Henry got him over the line for try number 1, his own carrying was impressive when he got the chance and he’s one of the three starters not charged with any missed tackles.  Might lose points for drawing pens at scrum time but I’d want another look at him with a different ref first.

2 Sean Cronin

OK let me get my pet peeve over with first - I gave Sean a terrible time for poor darts when Leinster had worked an attacking position in the opp 22 and he only went and did it again just 5 minutes into it on Saturday.  He’s a vital cog in our operation with every other facet of his game...I’d just be worried about his  yips coming with him off the bench in the final quarter of a tight contest with someone like France or Argentina

But back to his strengths...they were there for all to see throughout and there were no yips to be seen for our second try - when that lineout was forming I was saying out loud to all who could hear me “We HAVE to score a try here. No ands ifs or buts about it”.  And we did.  In fact HE did, so bravo.

3 Mike Ross

overlap before 1st scottish tryI’m wondering if the coaching ticket is concerned about his ability to get through 60 minutes, let alone 70 or 80?  Seemed to be locking down the scrum as well as ever on his side but the big question is just how vulnerable is he in open play?  Scotland’s first try came when Denton ran over the tight-head, drawing Zebo, Toner AND Henry to a breakdown that didn’t need that much involvement and left the overlap out wide which Jackson & Cowan exploited.

4 Devin Toner

Seemed to be easing his way back into the fray, made 5 clean lineout takes, dropped a simple enough pass in the early stages, and the scrum got some good shoves on which must point to the engine room.

5 Dan Tuohy

He’s a good lineout option and helped with the scrum-shoving but it’s in the area of discipline where he falls down.  Thought he might attract a card when he threw himself off his feet at a breakdown (though having said that the Scots were doing it themselves all afternoon) but his biggest no-no was failing to hide his blocking of a Scot as his backline tried an interesting reverse move off a lineout.  The resulting pen put the Scots on the front foot for the first time in the contest and led to their first try.

6 Jack Conan

A worthy debutante and got around the park pretty well without really standing out.  13 tackles with none missed in this particular Irish display is certainly nothing to be sneezed at but his rise in Irish rugby is surely a fraction to late for this World Cup cycle.

7 Chris Henry

I’m a big fan of Chris in an Irish jersey, I love the attitude he brings.  When he tackles he’s not happy getting the man down, his eyes follow the ball and if he can stick out a foot and disrupt the attack further even as he’s falling he will.  After all he has been through in recent times it’s great to see him not only back but also scoring tries - he was the regular go-to carrier off lineouts and with O’Donnell’s fortune’s gone in the other direction I reckon Chris could well have nailed down his spot in the final 23.

8 Sean O’Brien

My man of the match.  Yeah, I know, I went with another Leinster guy, I know.  But a feature of this week and last has been the display of what we’d call the “elite” players.  We saw it from Jamie last week, we saw it from Paulie when he came on this week and we most definitely saw it from Seanie as well - try as the Scots did to disrupt our jackling the Tullow Tank  is simply not to be budged once locked into position and there were turnovers aplenty for him.

The bench was used sparingly...I really hope Nathan White starts at tighthead against Wales because he deserves a look in scrums at the early stages of a match.  Of course the biggest cheer of the afternoon was for Paulie’s arrival and sure enough he provided a YouTube moment when, as the lads from Rugby Onslaught put it, he “scared” Zebo into getting his try.

Look...this is a four-match series of friendlies where we want to learn about our squad.  The first went way better than we expected and there’s no harm in the second knocking us back a peg or six.

We have committed ourselves to brand of rugby that demands accuracy in every facet of the game...the box kicks must be accurate, the tackles as we tend to approach them have to be hit and the penalties have to be avoided.  On Saturday this did not happen anywhere near to the levels we’d like but given it was a scratch 23 plus the high levels of organization shown by our opposition, I think we can take the four-try win and move on to the next challenge.

And you can be absolutely sure it will be a challenge.  It will be a very different Welsh team that comes to Dublin in a fortnight.  Then again, it will be a very different Irish team as well, no doubt including many more “elite” players.  It promises to have a level of intensity closer to a World Cup quarterfinal than the early pool matches we have seen so far.

Ready to crank things up a notch?  I reckon Joe and the boys are.  JLP


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