It’s easy to see the scoreline. It’s easy to see the opposition and the venue where the scoreline was achieved, at times a happy hunting ground for Ireland but at others very, very much not.
And of course even when you shield your eyes from those, it’s still easy to see your starting halfbacks, around whom pretty much our entire hopes rest, leave the field ahead of schedule with medical concerns.
But if I do nothing else with this writeup, I want to be absolutely sure that everybody saw the glimpse of what Ireland have to offer at the upcoming Rugby World Cup.
Of course there was plenty to see in the first half which would give us concern and I will get to it...but even that feeds into the point I want to make about Ireland’s try on Saturday. One of my biggest worries about our campaign is that when we come up against a side that doesn’t allow us to get a foothold in a contest, we need to know we can dig deep and get ourselves back on track.
And I believe every single stage in the play leading to Paulie’s try proves we can do just that, so if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to take you through each one with a photo - apologies if some of them are a bit hazy but our budget here at HoR Manor isn’t what it would be at other publications ;-)
SET THE SCENE - It’s the 50m mark, and Ireland have already begun the second half relatively well. We’re still keeping the cards close to the chest from a “backline moves” standpoint, but the phases are starting to roll together nicely and as we start looking at the action Sexton has just nailed a pen to narrow the deficit to 9 points.
PIC 1 - Ford puts the restart to the edge of our 22 and just as with the opening kickoff, the English chase is good and focused and Zebo is under pressure though he does take the catch.
PIC 2 - We need an exit strategy and Rory Best brings us from “under the kosh” to “on the front foot” with one canny carry.
PIC 3 - Reddan now has the opportunity to box-kick….he hasn’t been the most accurate with these since his earlier-than-planned introduction but this one is decent...does he have a good chaser?
PIC 4 - The answer is yes...of course ideally we’d want Tommy Bowe to make the catch but it’s also important he knows if he can’t get it he puts maximum pressure on the catcher and in this case Brown has no option but to offload to May.
PIC 5 - All that chasing by Bowe would have been for nought if his teammates weren’t also following up to put pressure on the English line of attackers, and though May shifts it out wide, we see a posse of Irish tacklers ready to pounce.
PIC 6 - In goes Jamie Heaslip - stays on his feet, wrests the ball from Robshaw, and plants it back for his side.
PIC 7 - Reddan did his best to wriggle the ball free but actually in the end it’s Paulie who plays scrum half in this play and is bang wide to the numbers amassing outside him.
PIC 8 - My favourite part of the whole sequence. Within seconds of turnover ball we have positions 11 12 13 and 15 in full flow in a 5m channel against back pedalling Englishmen in transition. Something concrete needs to be made of this play now.
PIC 9 - Payne passes it inside to Henshaw who looks forward and puts an intelligent little chip over George Ford, turning the English outhalf and as with any kick, the support must be there to exert pressure
PIC 10 - ...and sure enough it is. All Ford can do is pop it to May who can only clear and hey presto, from a restart at our own 22 we now have an attacking lineout. But of course that too must run smoothly…
PIC 11 - ...and it does. I assume Toner made the call and backed himself and he was easily found by Best….
PIC 12 - ...and rather than go for the conventional maul we opt this time to roll ahead with Heaslip and as Launchbury challenges he is brilliantly cleaned out by Best with his umpteenth involvement in this series…
PIC 13 - ...and finally it’s Captain Fantastic himself making the most out of the space created to get the ball over the line, and the touch down is well spotted by Nigel, no need for a TMO.
For me, it was extremely important to hack that series into little pieces and show how they all fit together, because it demonstrates just what everyone else involved with this Ireland set up is trying to do.
Right before the kickoff Joe had absolutely no hesitation in laying out his priorities…
Sky Sports interviewer : “Joe, what do you want to know about this team at full time that perhaps you don’t know about them now?”
Joe : “I want to know they’re all intact!”
...and while there was definitely much concern over our halfbacks when Murray had his bell rung when tackling Marler early in the first half and Sexton’s wincing after kicks from the hand late in the second had Irish fans tweeting in unison…
hat-tip to Oonagh Kerr for the screengrab
So we will just have to see how the injury report looks in the coming days. But from the outside it looks like we have way more reason to be confident than Warren Gatland & his Welsh setup who were extremely unfortunate against the Italians.
Very honourable mention for our display must also go to Greg Feek & Simon Easterby for the solid performance by our scrum...particularly at that venue. Encouraging stuff and long may the stability continue.
And before I move on to the negative aspects of our performance, you may notice I didn’t mention the name Dave Kearney yet. His was the 11 jumper in the foursome bombing down the touchline at one point but he never actually received the ball in that sequence. Still, he was easily Ireland’s man of the match.
To be honest it was a toss-up between collecting 13 photos at various stages leading to Paulie’s try or another 13 showing all the different positive things DK did on the day. He was everywhere. And even when he was found a bit wanting, like when England’s Mike Brown, also “in the zone”, caught the ball ahead of him, the Leinster man more than made up for it with a crunching tackle on the English full-back moments later.
My question following yet another quality DK-showing is this….could we consider him to be the replacement full back now ahead of Simon Zebo? He can most certainly play there.
Hopefully you know me well enough to know that’s not a “Leinster over Munster” observation. Zebo has upped his workrate and has shown he is still well in tune to “Schmidt-ball”. But as accurate a kick as Ford’s was to Watson for the English second try, our full back for the day was found wanting for his positioning, and we need our 15 to draw a bead on the incoming kick sooner.
So all I’m saying is while DK’s display definitely puts him in the frame for a starting jumper in the big matches down the line, I wonder has he done enough to improve his standing elsewhere throughout the squad.
As you can see my focus is slowly turning from the positive to the negative in this writeup...having looked at the second try let us now go to the first - and here we must look at Mr T Bowe.
He was most certainly one of our elite, “undroppable” players going into this warmup series and if there was just the one black mark against him Saturday, ie misjudging his tackle on May ahead of his try, there wouldn’t be any need for concern.
But when you consider that wasn’t even his first missed tackle in that sequence, plus the fact he made a few more errors in the first half, PLUS we happen to be well-stocked with wide men, at very least you have to lose the tag “undroppable” because there literally isn’t any more time to prepare. Personally, I’d be on for giving him a chance but that would mean a start against Canada and/or Romania where before he could well be rested for those matches.
Please know I am well aware that Tommy wasn’t the only tackle-missing culprit. In the lead up to the Murray knock we had Best missing Brown and even worse we had Devin Toner unable to stop Joe Marler in (what was for him anyway) full flight. There is no doubt that in the first half in particular we were found wanting defensively several times.
Then we have the offensive performance of Johnny Sexton in the first half. He was like a headless chicken at times, though that description comes with an important caveat. When you tell a 10 of his calibre he must go against his basic instincts and call conservative plays in what would normally be promising positions, IMO you practically do the poultry-decapitating yourself.
When the competition proper gets started, the kicks should be fewer, the passes should go to people who expect them, and the moves should make more sense relevant to both scoreline and position on the field. Here where we must revert to the Official HarpinOnRugby World Cup Mantra… #TrustJoe.
On the English side of things, I knew in my preview that they were far more motivated to get a result, and full credit to them for their both their preparation and execution right from the kickoff. But while anyone who has followed Joe Schmidt’s Ireland over the past couple of years know we definitely have at least one gear higher to shift into, I wonder can Stuart Lancaster say the same.
Whenever I think of that “Pool A of Death” I can’t help but feel that Michael Cheika is in by far the best position as a coach...he wasn’t meant to have the job for this RWC while for Messrs Gatland and Lancaster it’s pretty must their “raison d’etre” in their positions. And the pressure will be more on the Englishman because (a) Gats has already performed at both RWC and Lions levels and (b) this is an English-hosted World Cup.
That’s usually my strategy when discussing England in major tournaments...their press won’t heap the pressure on them so I might as well do what I can...anyone else with me? ;-)
Seriously though...they were of course deserved winners on the day (with Ben Youngs rather than Tom Wood my MotM choice) though for their own sake they will need to be more concerned about the tries they butchered than the ones they got.
But this isn’t an England fan site. We may have a much “easier” schedule in virtually every sense, but that in itself brings its own challenges.
Of course I’m not happy with large portions of our display on Saturday nor at other points throughout the “warmup” series….but in that word lies the overall point.
These were only matches to get us ready. Was four too many? Probably. But that’s done now. The squad is picked now. The countdown in days is fast approaching single digits.
As my headline suggests, now the Schmidt is going to start getting real. (sidenote - I told myself going into this World Cup that I’d only go for the “Schmidt sounding like the other word” pun the once and I never thought it would be this early so you may see it again down the line.)
Of course there is much to work on, but even if we saw nothing wrong, we’d think that itself was something wrong. Between now and the tournament kick off, whenever you have doubts, look at Heaslip’s try against Wales in the first warmup and then at Paulie’s from Saturday. They should set you right, because that’s a taste of what this squad can serve up when the time is right.
Whatever our world ranking may be, we’re going into this World Cup as one of the teams to beat, and I can’t wait to watch the other nations try because I’m sure the boys in green will do us proud. JLP
#COYBIG #ShoulderToShoulder #4ProudProvinces #TrustJoe