“We really want Ireland to be tested; obviously we want Ireland to win today but we want Italy to be at their absolute best” - Liam Toland in the TV3 commentary box after 3 minutes of the match.
Talk about “be careful what you wish for”!
Our result/performance combo was a bit like a penalty kick taken from a central position, one any kicker worth their salt is totally expected to make, that only goes over after first hitting both uprights before landing on the crossbar where it perches for a few tantalising seconds before slowly falling on the scoring side.
It was a win to test the resolve of Irish fans, a group that had become very hopeful that this could well be our year after back-to-back Six Nations titles and having a squad that appears united, focused and very keen to execute their coach’s playbook as best as they can. And I see online that many from the faithful found themselves back-tracking through their previous doubts afterwards...maybe we have been too confident? Maybe the tactics don’t work? Maybe this isn’t the golden coaching ticket after all?
Those reservations are totally understandable as with a bounce of a ball, a bad referee call or a slight dip in form, all hope can be gone in a second. Just ask poor Ben Hunt of the Brisbane Broncos, who dropped a simple catch off the kickoff in sudden-death extra time to virtually hand the Aussie rugby league championship to the North Queensland Cowboys last Sunday. That is at once what we love and what we fear most about following any sports team.
Plus as a spectacle, this had to be a very dull match to watch for someone who wasn’t emotionally invested in it. On the one hand you had Ireland, a team well drilled in pretty much every aspect of every position yet unable to fire on all cylinders, while on the other you had Italy, staring down the threat of elimination and responding with a display that lacked in complexity yet had an abundance of determination to compensate.
From a green-goggled perspective, the net result of our analysis cannot be good. But that does not of course mean there were no positives.
First and foremost there was our defence. 7, 10, and 9 add up to the lowest points against tally in the tournament...sure, we’d be expected to be at or near the top in that category given our schedule but let’s at least tick a credit box for meeting those expectations.
Bar one moment when a simple transfer of the ball to his other arm probably would have given Josh Furno a try in the corner, as much as the Azzurri were being pesky at the breakdown thwarting our possession, once they had it themselves there wasn’t much they could do with it.
And there was one nice attacking play from us, the Keith Earls try to be precise, where everything seemed to fall into place What was even better about it was that we were able to execute on a phase for which we were more focused on repelling an Italian exit plan as it was their put-in to the lineout.
But Peter O’Mahony had other ideas. A weak throw to the 2 jumper allowed the Munster man to pinch leading to Murray setting our attack in motion. It still needed a no-look pass from Sexton followed by a neat offload by Henshaw to Earls to create the space yet they made it all look frighteningly easy.
And what was even more frightening, at least from the Italians’ point of view, was that there were still another three quarters of the match to run and the odds were strong that this score would, as the cliché goes, “settle our nerves”.
But all credit to Jacques Brunel’s men; they were up for unsettling our nerves all over again. And what’s more, though our main worries coming into this fixture centred around the return of Sergio Parisse, as it turned out he wasn’t the one we needed to be concerned about - instead it was Simone Favaro with the inspired back row display they badly needed.
The Italian 7’s performance was only bettered by man of the match Iain Henderson, who is simply on fire at precisely the right time for both himself and Ireland. Covered pretty much all forms of tackle be it standard, strip, smother or choke (occasionally two in the one phase somehow!), had a good few of his trademark barnstorming carries, and even got himself in position to block a clearance.
OK that’s about enough of the positive. Time to harp on the elements of our play that weren’t so great, and I’m going to start by going back to that Italian try that nearly was, but probably not for the reason you might think at first.
Like I said earlier, for all of Peter O’Mahony’s valiant efforts to stop him, had Furno the presence of mind of a winger rather than a lock, he probably would have scored. But I’m more concerned with how the Italians constructed the chance in the first place. It was simplicity itself - a series of passes stretching to one touchline, followed immediately by another series of passes in the other direction - voila, they had the space before Ireland could fully cast their defensive net.
Was this dodgy D on our part? Perhaps. But any team that can both up the tempo at the drop of a hat and keep hold of the ball is going to find a gap in even the best of test defences, of which we are one. I’d rather use the Furno chance to illustrate what was going wrong for us when WE had the ball.
After the bit of wizardry that helped us create the Earls try, I suppose we could be forgiven for thinking this would continue to work for the rest of the contest. But when the inside passes and the targeted box kicks and the grubbers weren’t coming off for us anymore, I just wonder if we have a more “generic” offensive style to fall back on that’s low-risk yet makes execution more straightforward.
To put it another way, my biggest fear going into this tournament was almost realised on Sunday - that being when an opposition got in our faces and refused to let us impose our style on a contest, we’d be unable to adjust in time. Against Italy, we managed to stay ahead on the scoreboard although never by more than seven points which kept our blood pressure on a steady simmer throughout. Against France or whomever lies in wait beyond them, this may not be possible.
Another area of concern is discipline. Yes, I can imagine some die-hard Munster supporters gearing up for me to take a pop at Peter O’Mahony’s yellow card at this point. Well I still am - think it a provincial matter all you want. Whatever about the legalities of using his shoulder, to dive forward in that manner at that stage of the match and in that area of the pitch is sheer lunacy in my book. Doesn’t matter who does it or what province they play for. That said, he had put in a stellar 70 minute shift the rest of the match what with the lineout steal and try-saving tackle among other involvements,
But I’d wager Joe might be more concerned with the overall total of ten penalties. That is a figure I reckon he wants kept in single digits even more than the opposition’s points tally. Simply put, the lower the number pings, the better our performance. I’m not suggesting Pascal Gauzere was particularly bad on Sunday at all, but luckily for us we have Nigel Owens holding the whistle against France so we should be a whole lot clearer on what’s required around the breakdown area.
Going back to the fans’ reactions for a moment, I noticed many people were dragging up their previous prejudices about certain players, usually for parochial reasons...X can’t tackle, Y was too quiet, etc, etc and these comments often led to the predictable rabbit hole of reaction and counter-reaction.
The reason I bring this up is not because of the inter-provincial bickering - I’m loathe to even mention that though unfortunately it always seems to be there bubbling beneath the surface waiting for a poor performance from Ireland. My interest is more in the fact that many don’t seem to appreciate what the coaching staff have been trying to do even though it has been widely reported.
Joe has not only made micro managing a core part of his coaching philosophy, he has also found a way to make it sexy, for if the players have a problem they certainly aren’t showing it…
“No one is allowed to be redundant. If you’re not actively involved in the play, he wants you doing something to make the opposition think that you are, I love that attention to detail.”
That’s a quote from Conor Murray in the book “Six Nations, Two Stories” by Kate Rowan & Peter O’Reilly. Yes, I have worked it into the writeup as a plug partly because we’ve a copy to give away in our competition this week, but also to demonstrate how senior players like himself, Paul O’Connell, Rory Best and Tommy Bowe have all made similar statements so it’s clear Schmidt had little trouble bringing players from the four proud provinces together for Ireland - it was a large part of his remit after all.
And what we need to appreciate as we look on in support is that these “roles” assigned to individual players on a given match may not be the ones we’re used to from them. There can be no better example of this that with the positions 12 and 13. We saw them combine very well for the try on Sunday and both Henshaw & Earls were at or the top of our tackling charts (13 and 9 respectively).
But a key aspect of playing for Ireland these days is if you can’t train on the Tuesday, you can’t play at the weekend. This is often the reason Joe gives for absentees from his squad. So you need to be attuned to the drills and patterns in place for a particular match, meaning that in all likelihood we’re bound to see players doing things we may not have seen before. And if we haven’t seen it, chances are our opposition wouldn’t have seen it either.
Ah, the opposition. So often the fly in our ointment. Nobody is assuming any other team, particularly the ones we’ve yet to face at this World Cup, is going to just sit back and let us go through our pre-rehearsed motions to a T. And I’m pretty confident Joe knows this more than anyone. I say I’m concerned he doesn’t have a more simple plan in place in case the main one isn’t working but still, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my concerns are unfounded.
So if this match against the Italians was a test, well we got the win so we at least get a pass grade, and given our defence was pretty secure, the mark I’m landing on is “D plus”. That’s certainly not good enough to reach a final four let alone go any further I know, but let’s have a look at what we have achieved so far.
Three wins out of three, just the two tries conceded, both when matches were well over as contests. A spot in the final eight guaranteed. And most importantly of all, we go into the decider against France knowing we have the edge in points difference on the (not at all impossible) chance we finish level on match points.
For me, that all adds up to “job done”. This post is going out on Tuesday and at the same time, the lads are learning a whole new set of drills, a whole new set of calls, and with all due respect to Messrs Zebo & Earls who did fine jobs deputizing, the likely return of both Rob Kearney and Jared Payne, Joe’s preferred starters in those positions.
I know I say the following every week but that’s only because I believe it’s worth saying. All we can do as fans is give them what support we can and trust them to get the preparation just right because if we thought this was a test, however “meh” the French have been so far, we know they can bring it on Sunday.
Come On You Boys In Green. JLP
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