Monday, October 19, 2015

IRELAND-20 ARGENTINA-43

blindsided

BLINDSIDED

logo post greenHi.  Thanks for clicking over to Harpin On Rugby.  If you’re not an Irish fan, you are of course most welcome.  And if you are, you may be in two minds whether you really want to read about this game right now.  I’ll totally understand if you decide to click away, but hopefully you’ll be back eventually.

Because if you’re reluctant to read about it, imagine how I feel not only writing about it, but watching the match over again before I do!!!

Yet I’m still happy to complete the task, mostly because these writeups are meant to capture how I felt immediately following a Leinster or Ireland rugby weekend, and naturally that should include the bad days as much as the good, so here we go.

I was quietly confident ahead of this match, I cannot lie.  Well, when I say “quietly”, I did kind of say in my preview that I thought we’d win by 8-10 points, so I kind of got that wrong.  However, say what you like about how the game started...the fact remains it was a 3-point contest in the 63rd minute.

And I completely disagreed with the TV3 commentary team who seemed to think that having clawed our way back into this match we could get over the line by “chipping away with 3-pointers”.  I was firmly convinced we needed a third try to complete the comeback and make it stick, and what’s more, I firmly believed we could get it.

What went with that belief, however, was an assumption that we would not make any more mistakes in that final quarter.  It had to be nigh-on flawless rugby, much like the All Blacks played on the way to defeating us in that game I hate remembering yet still somehow seem to keep referencing.

So even though the deficit had gone back out to six points, when we had a lineout just inside our own half in the 65th minute, I knew this was our chance to seize the day.  We probably wouldn’t have scored directly  from here, but since our 2nd half defence had been so solid, even forcing the Pumas back to their own 22 would be a result we could build on.

The lineout was taken ok, but 8 phases later we still had possession and we were going nowhere as the Argentinian D wasn’t too shabby either.  The territory kick option by Ian Madigan was a decent shout at this point, yet he put it out on the full.  Then, although we won the ball back from the lineout and won a scrum not far outside our own 22 to try and get some momentum back, Conor Murray got distracted taking the ball out of the scrum and knocked it on.

In the space of just two minutes on the clock in a game we were chasing, we conceded not only possession but a good 40 metres on the pitch.  And shortly after that resulting scrum, Tuculet got the try over in the corner that effectively killed the match.

It’s not that I’m blaming the two players involved per se, but when accuracy is lacking we can’t be afraid to give names.  Of course there was no guarantee we would have scored without those errors, but for what it’s worth, my opinion is that we could have and the 7-point swing the other way was a killer.

That of course wasn’t the only significant swing on the day - Sanchez’ kick that hit the upright would have given Argentina a 20-point lead but a good clearance from Keith Earls that was well backed up eventually led to Luke Fitzgerald’s powerful finish.  A ten-point swing in our favour that set us on our way back to making this a contest.

And in the second half shortly after Madigan pushed a place kick wide that would have drawn us level, an unfortunate high tackle from Devin Toner (tough enough for him to avoid for every challenge) gave Sanchez a relatively easy three and resulted in a six-point swing for the Pumas.

But of all the swings and roundabouts over the 80 minutes, there’s no avoiding that opening spell which had us down by 17, so it’s time to start harping on it.

91 points in 9 matches.  A shade over 10 per contest.  That’s Ireland defensive record in competitive matches in this calendar year.  It could be said that it’s a Championship-winning standard.  But I suppose that depends on which Championship.

We got a taste of what can be done on us when we played Italy a couple of weeks ago.  Sweep passes one way, draw the defenders into the middle, then ship it out the other way and if you’re fast enough you should develop an overlap.

That sounds simple the way I put it, but it demands a high level of accuracy.  One that was lacking for Josh Furno as he forgot to shift the ball to his other arm to give him a free one to fend off Peter O’Mahony.  But it was one that the Pumas had in spades yesterday and with the minutes still in single digits, we were down 14-0 on the scoreboard, and not long after it was 17 - a deficit Joe Schmidt’s Ireland hasn’t faced since the Wallabies hockeyed us back in Nov 2013.

Even the way Sanchez’ conversion for the second try fell over the bar after hitting the upright made it look like it was not to be Ireland’s day, and what’s more, the Pumas were also beating us with our own stick of high balls which they were chasing and catching well.

The Argentinian points wouldn’t have been so bad if we were getting anywhere with the ball ourselves, and unfortunately I have to mention that blasted game against the All Blacks again, because we were getting a taste of our own medicine.  They were making complete nuisances of themselves at the breakdown, with their skipper Augustin Creevy often at the heart of it.  Getting shoved into oblivion on our first scrum feed in what should have been a points-scoring position didn’t help much either.

So there we were.  Over two scores down and not even 15 minutes gone and what’s more, yet another of our “elite” players lost to injury in Tommy Bowe.  We had most certainly been blitzed, but the match was most certainly not over.  We just needed a bit of help.  Enter Senor Ramiro Herrera.

I’ll look at the other incident later - but had we pulled off the win the Pumas’ tight head prop would be first in the dock for his needless no arms challenge on Keith Earls that had him see yellow.  Still though...his absence gave us a window of opportunity and we had to make the most of it, and for a while there it looked like Argentina were actually going to win that 10-minute period.

The loss of Johnny Sexton took his patented “wraparound” move off the table.  We tried it a couple of times on the day but it clearly wasn’t the go-to set play.  What we DID have at our disposal, however, was Ian Madigan’s howitzer of a long pass.  It can hurt you as Leinster found out to their cost against Toulon, but used wisely it can be deadly, and one to Robbie Henshaw created an overlap all on its own.

When Henshaw shipped it on to Luke Fitzgerald, well, let’s just say he’s no Josh Furno.  He picked a spot on the try line, shifted the ball under his other arm and nobody was going to stop him.

Right, so that was one try back - where was another going to come from?  Many’s a time a Joe Schmidt team has come out from a halftime interval to get the first score, and this was no exception.  The Pumas threatened from the kickoff, but Chris Henry forced a turnover and not long after we were the ones on the attack.  Lineout, power play, Luke breaks through, sweet offload to Jordi Murphy, try Ireland.

I know it may seem pointless going back over those two tries given how the match turned out, but I feel I must let the record show that Ireland did extremely well to dig deep and fight back to some extent even though it wasn’t quite enough.

And on top of this, for a large chunk of the second half, our defence somehow managed to find its way back to its best.  Line speed was back to maximum, the post-tackle mischief was back, and the intensity was coming from everywhere….Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Chris Henry were stand outs in this area.  Yeah, it failed us in the closing stages but like I’ve already  pointed out, I felt the self-inflicted territory loss was the bigger issue and the decisive try from Tuculet was in the furthest extremity of the corner, scant consolation though that may be.

Now - to the second incident involving Herrera.  I have two issues here - first, I didn’t like the way the referee said “I need to be 100% sure”.  Why should it make a blind bit of difference whether or not a player has already been carded?  We had this before when Sam Warburton pulled down our maul on the try line in the same stadium last March.   Foul play should be judged on its (lack of) merits, not recent history.

Then we have the use of the arm.  Yes, he does stretch out an arm during the course of the play.  But the way I see it, the involvement of the arm is important because it is meant to be used for binding when joining a ruck. His arm doesn’t touch his team-mate until AFTER his head makes contact.  For me, that makes it an accessory after the fact.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think the ref did do much wrong in interpreting the Laws of the Game, but if that’s the case then the Laws need re-evaluating, much like the whole “when do we go to the TMO” issue that arose out of Australia v Scotland.  The thrust of the legislation & ref interpretation should be towards player safety, not keeping 15 men on the pitch.

And in many ways, Herrera’s fellow prop Ayerza committed an even worse offence not long afterwards - off his feet, head first, taking out the 9, you decide which one.  All adds up to a yellow in my book, especially given the situation.

But let’s not have any of that take away from what was a marvellous performance by the Pumas.  I saw a lot of cautious opinion by Ireland supporters during the week’s build up, but only one negative viewpoint seemed to make sense.  Maybe we have been preparing for the France match all along, but Argentina will have been preparing for this.  And they out-played us, and they deserved the win.  By that wide a margin?  I’m not so sure.  But it’s cup rugby so the margins mean absolutely nothing anyway.

There will be time for more detailed Irish World Cup post-mortems down the line, and I suppose the disappointment could still be clouding my judgement, but here are some thoughts for now, taken first from a narrow viewpoint then a broader one.

Our mantra here at Harpin Manor has been #TrustJoe throughout this campaign - was that wrong?  I really don’t think so.  Joe’s success has come from employing a coaching format that involves extensive attention to detail and few can argue it has gotten results.  But another aspect of his style is that it involves some systems put in place that can be labelled “high-risk”.

You never want to drag absentees too much into things but come on...Paulie, Sexton, O’Brien, Payne, O’Mahony and then Tommy Bowe after 12 minutes?  Sure, you can have understudies ready and waiting in the wings but that’s a whole heap of test caps you’re being denied.

Finally on the broader view, I have said many’s a time before on this site that the IRFU have done a great job over the years adapting the way the game is played here to suit the system the European game is built around.  But my problem with this fact is that the system is very much inferior to that employed by the Rugby Championship nations.

When will Ireland get a proper chance to avenge this latest World Cup defeat to Argentina?  And when I say “proper”, I mean with our coaching staff having a couple of months with the extended squad to prepare?  You know - the way the Rugby Championship nations do every time they come here in non-RWC-year Novembers? 

The answer is not before the next World Cup.  Unless of course something is done about the European calendar.  Yes, a bugbear I like to harp on ad nauseum, but that’s how I see it.  The clubs have too much money and too much control and the test game, which is meant to be the pinnacle of the sport, suffers as a result.

What say I leave it at that before I stray too far off topic.  Sadly, our World Cup journey is over and can I take this opportunity to congratulate the thousands upon thousands of Irish fans that have done us so proud over there, sometimes at matches we weren't even taking part in!

My best wishes to the remaining teams, which I will be supporting in this order ARG-AUS-RSA-NZL.

But for all its flaws, the European rugby season is only getting started.   Pro 12, Champions Cup and next Spring, I defy anyone to suggest we can’t make it three Six Nations titles in a row.  Come on Leinster.  Come on Ireland.  I’ll never stop believing.  JLP

#COYBIG #ShoulderToShoulder #FourProudProvince #TrustJoe

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