Monday, August 10, 2015

Wales-21 Ireland-35

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logo post greenNo disrespect to the likes of Canada, Argentina, Australia or the Highlanders but it sure is good to be back harping on Irish teams and players this week.

And when you find yourself back in the comfortable surroundings of your own  “wheelhouse”, it sure doesn’t hurt to be welcomed by a polished display like this  from the boys in green...five quality tries, plenty of standout individual performances and an overall sense that despite over three months since the end of the Six Nations, “Schmidt-ball” is alive, well and thriving right throughout the squad.

The injury worries of course take the shine off things a tad, but sadly they are a reality in the sport and when looking at these warmups the prime focus needs to be on the general display of the team as a whole and this was pretty top notch, it has to be said.

Of course here is where I must throw in phrases like “it’s early days” and “let’s not get ahead of ourselves” but I really don’t think that’s a message that really needs to be drummed home with Irish fans...we know all too well the folly of resting on our laurels. 

But having said that, my mindset going into this World Cup campaign is that we have to believe in ourselves and where we are if we’re to turn that promise into success, so there’s no harm in our indulging in some “gushing”, once it comes with an expectation rather than a presumption of more to come down the line.

So let’s kick off this writeup with a detailed look at my favourite Irish try of the five; our last one scored by ironically the only Jones in either of the two matchday squads.

It all began as the Welsh had possession at midfield and Jonathan “Jiffy” Davies offered an interesting appraisal of Ireland’s RWC2015 chances in the BBC Wales commentary box… (note - the score was WAL 7-30 IRE at the time)

“I don’t think there’s much difference between the Irish first string and second string...there’s two players Sexton and O’Connell - if they play then they’re very strong; if they don’t play, I think their chances of winning the World Cup are seriously diminished”

For me that statement is a contradiction of itself.  No difference between 1st and 2nd string yet we’re lost without Johnny & Paulie? 

But let’s put a pin in that for now - as he was saying all of that, for the umpteenth time in the contest the Welsh were getting nowhere against the trawl net of Irish tacklers. 

On 52:36, prop Rob Evans brought the ball into contact.  On 53:15, Felix Jones was grounding the ball over the line, and for me the best way to describe it is to work backwards.

Jones had taken up prime position in the wide channel, but the ball doesn’t get to him without a sweet pinpoint pass on the run from Zebo - not quite as magical as the one from BOD at the same venue in 2013 but definitely more impressive than the flick from the same game which more seem to remember!

And the reason they had that space out wide was due to strong carries by Donncha Ryan, Darren Cave and Richardt Strauss in a more central position deep in the Welsh 22, with Kieran Marmion quickly there to start the next phase each time. 

And the reason they were that deep in the Welsh 22 was that Fergus McFadden had done one of his burrowing runs on the far touchline. 

And the reason he could carry out that run was that Paddy Jackson and Jordi Murphy combined to not only ship the ball wide to him but also offer him support as he burrowed.

And the reason Jackson and Murphy were able to combine was that when Mike Ross carried the ball forward moments earlier, he had the clearing support of Donncha Ryan and Tommy O’Donnell, again with Marmion there quickly to distribute.

And the reason Ross had his carry was that even though he wasn’t quite on the shoulder in support of Jamie Heaslip crashing forward, his skipper was able to find him on the turn.

And the reason Heaslip was crashing forward was that after Rob Evans took the ball into contact at the start of all this, a combination of Ryan and O’Donnell were able to not only stop him but also pry the ball loose for Jamie to scoop up.

Sorry for all those “and the reasons” but I take a lot of satisfaction out of  describing that try in detail, even if we did have an extra man at the time. 

Despite the fact we were well ahead on the scoreboard and had already gone to the bench several times, the XV on the park were able to create a chance from nothing, take full advantage of it with nobody resting after just one contribution and, as an added bonus, all four proud provinces were represented throughout to boot.

And it’s not like the other tries were shabby either...the first from Heaslip came after pressure from our scrum on a Welsh feed deep in their own 22 was backed up by both Reddan and Ross forcing a turnover which we were able to finish.  Sure, the home “D” stood more for “disarray” than “defence” and it bugged me how Hibbard was moaning at his players behind the line allowing Jamie to go in under the posts behind him, but it was still good work from our boys.

Try number two came from more solid work from our front row - first a pen getting us into the 22 where Keith Earls did the bulk of the hard work getting over the line but couldn’t quite get it down, and then our tight 8 provided the platform for Cave to get the job done off a sweet line which had the Welsh 6 and 7 at 6s and 7s.

Not long afterwards we put even more pressure on the home scrum though they were able to retain the ball, and outhalf James Hook had several passing options outside him.  I’m a fan of Hook’s though he never seems to fit into the Gatlan plan and it certainly showed.

He settled on Eli Walker for his pass and Andrew Trimble was all over the winger like a cheap suit.  His crashing hit prised the ball loose allowing Earls to scoop up and saunter in for an easy finish making the score 22-0.

Later in the first half we even had the luxury of settling for three points after a pen deep in Welsh territory to give the forwards a rest...the fourth try didn’t come until the 47th minute when a straightforward lineout/maul move opened up space on the blind side for Zebo to dive over for a deserved score in his extended cameo.

So definitely a satisfying overall performance from the lads and the scoreboard was kept ticking over.  But how much of it was it our play and how much of it was that of the home side?  A tricky one.

There’s no doubt that despite the fact neither side was anywhere near close to their first string, the Irish clearly had the edge when it came to experience, with no new caps and a host of players who have had bad injury luck in recent years.

But it certainly wasn’t all bad for the Welsh...Anscombe showed promise in running the offence and placekicking after he came on and the fact that they scored all their points in the last 10 minutes of each half suggests their lung-busting pre-season regime is bearing fruit and that definitely won’t hurt their chance in their “pool of death”.

moriarty on zeboOn the yellow card for Ross Moriarty...I think this is one bit of analysis that Jiffy got spot on.  Had Zebo remained in the same position as the debutante lunged with his arm swinging, the connection would have looked a whole lot worse and could have courted a red card. 

As for the player himself, from what I have seen of him for England Under 20s and Gloucester, I’d have thought he’s a card magnet almost on Dylan Hartley levels which would be the last thing Gatland needs in a back row forward.  But he seems to be backing the lad so more power to him if he makes the final squad.

Back to our boys, on individual displays I have a feeling I’m about to write myself into trouble.  Let’s get the opinion out there first...I’m not sure Earls was our “man of the match” as Davies suggested and perhaps that honour should have gone to Jamie Heaslip or Jordi Murphy.  Yeah, I know...I want to take it away from “Munster” and give it to “Leinster”.

Well if that’s how you want to interpret it, that’s fine.  All I can say is that given the standards we need to set ourselves for this World Cup, while Earls is a quality player well deserving of his shot at the final squad (and should make it too), on this occasion I felt our back row provided our best contribution. 

Yes, Tommy O’Donnell had a stellar outing as I have already said, it’s just I felt Heaslip’s patrolling of the tackle area plus Murphy’s stealing particularly at lineout time were instrumental in our establishing that early lead, and if we MUST pick out individuals, maybe it’s the colour of my goggles but I’d go for them.

Going back to Tommy, he really was unfortunate with the injury, not only in that it came so late in the game but also that on any other occasion when Chris Henry came off the bench it would have been a straight swap with the Munster flanker...only this time the intention was to rest Heaslip so Murphy moved to 8.  Here’s hoping the injury wasn’t too bad, but it certainly didn’t look too good.  From the sound of it Trimble’s looked to be more precautionary so fingers crossed there too.

[UPDATE - right after publishing, news came through that Tommy would indeed miss the World Cup, terrible news for him, here’s to speedy return]

Of course there were several other factors in our dominance...the front row providing such a strong platform, Richardt Strauss putting himself about, Eoin Reddan keeping the tempo going throughout his shift and going back to Earls, his combination with Darren Cave in the centre was extremely effective. 

Paddy Jackson didn’t have his finest day from the kicking tee but as outhalf he seemed to be carrying out the gameplan to a T, often electing to plant a grubber at odd times though I’d say that was more out of a desire not to show too much of our attacking hand rather than a poor decision.

But this is why I have kept the individual assessments to a position far down the writeup.  If we allow ourselves to get too bogged down in the trees that are our provincial favouritism, we’re liable to miss the forest that is the overall objective of this team which is clear any time we hear from them...that they are a unified squad with a unified goal.

This focus throughout the squad is best demonstrated, in my opinion anyway, by these photos, one of Tommy O’Donnell wincing after conceding a pen and Ian Madigan with his head bowed as Tipuric sails past him on the way to the extremely well-worked second Welsh try.

body language

If I’m interpreting their body language correctly (and I’m hardly an expert) their reactions are along the lines of…”I’m going to pay for that on Monday morning at the DVD session”, which, if true, can only be seen by us fans as a good thing, as it would mean they won’t be taking anything for granted as the Big Show looms near.

So there we have it...all these matches are leading up to when we go back to the Millennium Stadium on Sep 19 to play another team in red jerseys when it all gets real.    Many “poo-poo” the World Rugby rankings, but it’s hard to ignore them when they say your boys are 2nd on the planet.

Do we want to pretend those numbers (however curiously arrived at they may be) don’t matter or would it be better to accept that we’re up amongst the favourites and prepare to give the lads all the support they need to bring Saturday’s form through to September and beyond?  I know what I’m doing.  JLP

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