Monday, September 21, 2015

IRELAND-50 CANADA-7

2015 Rugby World Cup Group D, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales 19/9/2015Ireland vs CanadaIrelands Iain Henderson scores their second tryMandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

SYSTEMATIC

logo post green“There were seven system errors in that 90 seconds, you know.  I don’t think there were too many missed tackles but some of those system errors were very minor and you wouldn’t notice them, but there was a couple of fairly major system errors”

I’m in the process of reading the excellent “Six Nations, Two Stories” from Peter O’Reilly & Kate Rowan for a review which I will publish tomorrow.  In the above quote, Joe Schmidt is talking to Peter about those 90 seconds before Ryan Crotty’s heart-breaking try in THAT match against New Zealand back in November 2013.

For me that gives us as good an insight into how Joe and his crew operate as any.  Given he uses the phrase “system errors” three times in a short passage, clearly a lot of focus is put on the system and while you’d think that in a sport with as much chaos on the pitch as rugby union has, this would be hard to accomplish, you certainly can’t find too much fault with his overall results even though it didn’t quite all go to plan that day.

So when we look at this match, while we should always have won by a scoreline around the 50-7 mark, we could feel tempted to completely discount any analysis because, with all due respect of course, “Ah, sure wasn’t it only Canada”.

But for those of us who haven’t turned their backs on the performance just yet, there was a lot to be seen which can be taken forward to the bigger battles down the road.

It most certainly wasn’t the best of starts for us, and there was nothing to do with any “system” about our errors in the opening 7-10 minutes.  Earls and Dave Kearney had crossed wires on a routine pass, O’Brien dropped a very simple ball after a lineout, Sexton fired a pass to DK that was way too long and went into touch.

And on top of that, we had the Canadians playing some decent basic rugby.  We took the kickoff and as always we were hungry to get possession straight back but the “Canucks” were well able to hold on to it and they looked quite handy with the ball in the early stages before they were awarded a kickable penalty after Jamie was pinged for not rolling away.

Now I’m not much of a betting man but one thing about rugby I find is that no matter how heavily fancied one team is over another in a contest, it could well be worth a flutter to bet on the underdog scoring first.  I remember Cardiff went 3-0 against Leinster in the Aviva in a HCup quarterfinal and it was the last time they scored that day.  Much more recently Uruguay were 6-0 on Wales at one point yesterday.

So when scrumhalf Gordon McRorie was lining up his kick which would have put his side 3-0 up after 8 minutes, I doubt many fans would be overly concerned.

But in a team which puts such stall in their “system”, you would of course expect there to be much concern.  And when the kick went wide, you could see it in Ireland’s play right from the restart that they were determined to crank things up a notch, and our side of the scoreboard started moving.

First though, on those early errors, given how the match turned out, I think we can give them a pass, even if we know they will be critical of themselves.  After all the buildup and all the preparation and all the hype, I dare anyone not to have a few butterflies for the opening few minutes, while as for Canada, they had absolutely nothing to lose and were bound to be pumped to make an impact from the off.

But from the second Sexton put his boot to that restart at our own 22, you could see “Schmidtball” in full flow for all to see, and the Canadians just could not do nothing to stop it.  By the way - as much as I’d love to add photos to this description much the same way as I did against England in our final warmup, I’m sorry but I just don’t have the time lol!

Skipper Paul O’Connell got his hand to the kick first and though his knock down was headed for touch, Keith Earls did a good job of keeping it in play.  The ball was still bobbling around before Jamie Heaslip brought some order to proceedings.  First phase we looked for some crash ball to get us on the front foot which was ably supplied by one Sean O’Brien, before Conor Murray put in one of his laser-guided box kicks.

I will never stop saying it - Joe Schmidt has his entire squad under pressure when it comes to kicking from play...don’t put it to boot without a strategy to get it back.  And sure enough there was Iain Henderson (who was everywhere on the day as it happened) to claim the ball back, and possession was secured once more before SOB had yet another carry to put us on the front foot.

Then we had Johnny Sexton putting boot to ball...not in the reluctant manner we saw in the warmups, however...instead we saw a beauty which found touch in the Canadian 22 from 15m inside his own half and what’s more, it wasn’t to be his last kick like that on the day.  Another thing I notice now when he does this is that the commentators no longer liken him to his predecessor in the Irish 10 jersey anymore.  This is Sexton being Sexton, and nobody else (great and all as ROG was, of course, before I get any abuse!).

So it’s a lineout to Canada but this is one of many areas where they struggled in their warmupsseries, and sure enough under immense pressure from Paulie they throw it in crooked and we have a scrum (a more than decent platform for us on the day).  Now here is where I get animated when watching Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.  Well, more animated than usual, of course.

Whenever we have a set piece up to 40m from the opponents’ line, I am expecting a score.  Those are the standards we need to expect from this team if we are to be taken seriously...and that would go against the All Blacks every bit as much as it goes against Canada.

Off the scrum we saw Luke Fitzgerald in the “crash ball” role off the power play and while the Canadian defence wasn’t exactly one for folding at that stage, it was certainly buckling as we pounded our way through the phases.  I was especially impressed by one carry from Paulie where he seemed to be able to bow down to almost to knee level before powering forward protecting the ball.

Eventually on the 7th phase referee Glen Jackson has his arm out for an advantage to us so Conor Murray tries a speculative kick to the far touchline but it comes to nothing.  The pen is right under the posts so on this occasion it makes sense for Sexton to take the 3 and get the scoreboard moving.

But that wasn’t enough for us...we’re back at them again off the restart and Jared Payne goes tearing up the touchline though he does get it turned over on him after being tackled.  A bit of kick tennis follows and culminates in Rob Kearney following up his own kick and forcing another penalty. 

The Canadians seemed a bit knackered now with all the pressure and clearly we spot that as rather than take what would have been another “easy three”, we tap instead and pile it on once more, with Henderson again doing much of the heavy lifting.  He gets  right to the try line where Jamie Cudmore is sent to the bin for illegal hands in the ruck...you could say he had no other choice.

No easy threes for Ireland anymore...we have the extra man now and we’re determined to force the advantage home.  Lineout, maul, Sean O’Brien try.

Hopefully that is not the last time in this World Cup where I can trace an Irish score back several minutes to see how all the pieces of the puzzle fitted together perfectly.  Whatever the opposition, it’s a system that can work extremely well.

And it wasn’t too long before we had another “must score” set piece, this time a scrum, at a central point about 35m out.  Here, for the first time, we got to see one of the backline moves which had been kept so well under wraps throughout August.

In this move, Conor Murray actually plays what I’d call a “9 and a half” role where he does a wraparound  with Dave Kearney & Luke Fitzgerald and when that space is created, THEN the ball arrived to Johnny Sexton running at full pace with yet two more men with him on the outside.

That gets them well into the 22 and eventually Paulie crashes over yet it is called back for being held up.  Still, there’s a 5m scrum for Ireland and once again some end product is expected and this time it’s Iain Henderson crashing over the line.  His fellow Ulsterman Rory Best would probably like to think his arm wrapped around his lock helped somehow but I think the youngster had it all on his own :-)

So about 15 minutes after it looked like we were going 3-0 down, now we were 17-0 up, and there was more to come.  Sexton’s own try showed great determination though I wonder if it was necessary...in an ideal world I’d rather he used the man outside him to save his own breath as would most 10s.  But then again he’s not most 10s I suppose.

And finally before halftime we had the bonus point try which was much more conventionally constructed...ball flung out wide one way where Sean O’Brien was waiting to make some ground, before being chucked back out in the other direction where this time I’d forgive Dave Kearney for not using the wide men outside him, though Messrs McGrath & Ross probably won’t (nor would they thank me for calling them “wide men” though I meant field position not girth haha).

So it’s half time and 29-0 with the match won and maximum points in the bag.  The second period did not begin well for us any more than the first had.  Paulie’s yellow card was a little baffling but we won’t dwell too much on it here...and with the extra man we found it hard going though we still didn’t concede a score in that time.

On 55 minutes, Ian Madigan was brought on for Johnny Sexton, which pretty much told me that Joe had seen all he wanted to on the day,  More substitutions followed, including an entire front row change with Cian Healy making his first appearance in a senior arena for a long time.

It took the new-look Irish XV a while to get settled but eventually it was Sean Cronin applying the finishing touch to yet another attacking lineout play, which this time saw us maul all the way from the 22 to the 5m line.

Then we had the single Canadian score and if this match has me worried in any way, it’s here.  One feature of “Schmidtball” is that players in wide channels are encouraged to grubber kick forward when they see an opportunity, once it’s followed up of course.  At one stage Keith Earls provided an excellent example of this with two runners in support and the result was a scrum to Ireland.

But the thing about that strategy is that the opposition is bound to be ready for it, and in DTH Van der Merwe the Canadians definitely had a winger with experience enough to be ready to pounce, and when Jared Payne’s kick ahead went straight to him, while many would have knocked on, he didn’t and went in for an easy score the other way.

Still the only real damage that try did to anything to do with Irish rugby was that it ruined my planned headline of “Oh Canada”.  A super pass on the run from Keith Earls to Rob Kearney followed by a neat break through from Madigan before laying it on a plate for Payne finished off the comprehensive victory nicely.  Could have been an 8th try at the end but we won’t split hairs over that.

On individual performances, like many who commented afterwards I’d have been more inclined to give it to Iain Henderson than Johnny Sexton - though both played extremely well the fact that the Ulsterman spent the entire 80 minutes on the pitch would swing it for me.

Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald also deserve a mention as both acquitted themselves extremely well.  I totally appreciate what everyone was saying about Andrew Trimble’s exclusion, but on this evidence anyway those who went in his stead did a bang up job.

Now - to Jared Payne.  His is a curious role in this team as far as I’m concerned.  I thought he did extremely well against Scotland in the warmups though nobody mentioned him.  After watching this match a second time I thought he was actually below par - not just for the kick that led to the Canadian score but for a few little, well let’s call them “system errors” throughout.  But then I check the stats and he was our 2nd highest tackler after Henderson (who got 19 btw) with 14!!!

Yet whether he plays well or not, he seems to be flying well under the radar of opinion amongst Irish fans, almost as if we’re in denial that anyone else could possibly be wearing the green 13 jersey!  Still - while I thought he may not have been 100% on Saturday, I certainly wouldn’t consider dropping him, and while I did think Luke did well at 12, I think the Henshaw-Payne partnership should and probably will be reunited once fitness allows.

But going back to Mr Henderson...has he forced his way into a starting role?  You’d have to say yes based on his performances, and the only thing left in favour of Devin Toner right now would seem be his ability to call lineouts, which isn’t nothing as it takes a lot of pressure off the skipper.  As the saying goes, a good headache for any coach to have.

So...how should we feel about this result & performance?  Should we think somewhere along the lines of Colonel Curmudgeon himself?

Well, let’s just say I knew we’d get opinion like that after full time...and  another theme that prevailed was “let’s not get too excited just yet”...oh, that really got my goat!

I really do feel that the vast majority of Irish fans are well aware that this was a match we should have won comfortably.  So when we do what we’re expected to do AND show a lot of promise in the process, we should be happy with our lot.  And that goes for double when you consider that England, Wales, France and New Zealand all had less than perfect starts to their campaign.  Wait...I seem to have left out the Springboks there...how did they get on again?

The point is, the job was done, we seem ok on the injury count, so it’s all good for now.  On to Wembley and hopefully a similar outing against Romania.  JLP

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