So there’s just over a half hour to go in the biggest rugby match of your career and your team has held a slender 9-6 lead for 20 minutes before they finally get over the line for a try.
What coach WOULDN’T allow themselves to pump their fist for a moment and go “Yes!!!!” in celebration? Joe Schmidt, that’s who. He’s got personality & charisma to burn in person, yet when in the coach’s box he is renowned for keeping it together whatever is happening on the pitch.
But this was no ordinary day at the office.
Of course I have absolutely no knowledge of what went on when the first discussions were going on between the IRFU and Joe back when he was taking up the reins, but I would imagine there may have been an exchange like this one…
“Right, Joe, what do you need us to do first? Name it.” “Get Johnny back.”
Injury is something that can befall anyone at anytime in any physical endeavour. But in sport, you still need to do all you can to get your best players out there, and given the success they have had together you can surely appreciate how important Sexton was to Joe’s vision for Ireland.
Yet after just 25 minutes in the one match that has pretty much been the “raison d’etre” (pardon my French) of his tenure, a (perfectly legal) smash from Louis Picamoles meant that our star out half needed to be withdrawn.
And the way this match had gone, 25 wasn’t necessary a “low” number. It could also be seen as a large one given in that entire time not ONCE did Ireland have an attacking set piece for Sexton to choose one of the plays he had in his back pocket to pick apart the French resistance.
We did have some possession in our opponent's’ half during that time but never off a set piece, and with first Michalak and then Spedding missing early kicks forcing returns from in or around our own 22, ironically it took the third attempt from the tee putting the French on the board to give us a chance to create a decent offensive situation from the restart.
And sure enough once given the chance we quickly worked our way into a position to force a penalty advantage...Sexton’s drop goal attempt hit the post but he made no mistake from the placekick.
Not long after that, however, an equalising score from Spedding, followed by that crunch tackle by Picamoles, had every Irish fan wondering if this was to be our day.
Then along comes Mr Ian Madigan, who despite having very few chances to play at out half for Leinster while Sexton was away, was given a full vote of confidence by his coach a lot earlier in the warmup series than many (myself included) would have expected.
And he was barely on the pitch a hot minute when he was faced with a chance to restore Ireland’s lead with a high-pressure kick which he slotted over.
Not long after, we finally had an opportunity to use one of our “power play” moves off a lineout inside the French half, Madigan was able to execute his end of the deal to perfection allowing Tommy Bowe to dissect the first-up tackling line just as it had been designed on the training pitches. With Earls in good support, all that was left was to fix his tackler, shift it to his left and surely we’re in business.
Was Keith a fraction off in his running line? Did he have the full-on sprint of Brice Dulin coming to cover in the corner of his eye? Or was it a simple case of “white line fever”? We’ll probably never know for sure, but he couldn’t take it cleanly and a massive chance was gone.
But the rugby gods weren’t done testing us just yet.
I know it would be grossly unfair to look for anyone to “blame” for what happened to our skipper but having said that, I don’t believe in ignoring facts, and besides, this isn’t really blame, it was just a costly error.
There were but 20 seconds left on the first half clock when Madigan chose to kick for territory only for it to slice off his boot and out on the full. You would have thought the worst result of that mistake would be for the French to pinch some kind of score before the break. You would have been wrong.
Once more, there was nothing wrong with anything in this play, but while it would take a lot to take mighty Paul O’Connell down, having Fofana grabbing one leg while Pascal Pape (never seems to be far away from these instances does he) pushes him back in a slightly different direction was never going to end well.
The play was still going on but I can still hear Liam Toland’s words “O’Connell is down!” ringing in my ears. Ah, no. Not Paulie. You’ve gotta be kidding me!
Even with the able replacements, to lose your skipper having already lost your playmaker has to make the halftime period a tough one to get through for any coaching staff. It sure didn’t feel like we had the lead on the scoreboard, even though we did.
And it wasn’t as though the Irish faithful could be accused of “losing faith” in Joe or anyone in the Irish setup at that point. It’s just that we have become well used to having our hopes built up over the years only for something to thwart us and on this occasion it didn’t make it any easier that it was something external.
There was one thing we weren’t counting on, however. The truth of the matter is that Johnny and Paulie never really left the field.
You get to bring 31 bodies with you to a World Cup. Not 1, 2, 15 or even 23. If it’s your intention to stay through to the final weekend, you need to be able to get the most out of every man. Sure, you have your marquee players but if you haven’t prepared for injury in every position then you haven’t done your job.
And one thing we know about Joe Schmidt is that this particular aspect of his job is one he does very well. Not only does he have a well-thought-out philosophy, and not only is he able to get his charges to believe in it, but what that second half display by the Irish in Cardiff yesterday showed was that he can also get them to execute it to a T.
Here is where I must ‘fess up that my fears going into this match were unfounded. I was concerned that if something unexpected were to happen to knock us off our game plan, we wouldn’t be able to adjust. Boy, was I wrong. And boy, am I glad I was.
Now when I say we got through that second half simply getting the “basics” right, I feel I have to explain. Joe seems to have re-defined what is meant by the word. “Basics” for this Ireland team aren’t just about passing, tackling and kicking.
They are about have a minimum of two runners on a kick chase. They are about tacklers not giving up after the initial contact and causing as much mayhem as they can before hitting the ground. They are about knowing when the “choke tackle” is on and when it isn’t..
Even without two seemingly invaluable players, such was the general awareness about the squad, their deputies were more than able to slot in and stick to the job at hand despite the immense pressure of the occasion.
And let us not forget the immense pressure applied by the opposition either. France were certainly no mugs on the day. Led for the most part by a determined Louis Picamoles, they couldn’t be faulted much for their efforts trying to claw their way in front but they just couldn’t manage it.
But while they had to make twice as many tackles as we did, once again we can be proud of a monumental defensive effort. It doesn’t seem that long ago when we were worrying about our coverage after losing to England in our final warmup. Now I know their pool was way tougher but the fact remains that when it mattered, they went out while we only conceded two tries in our four matches, and those were against the two “weaker” nations in contests that were already decided.
I have gone this far down the writeup before highlighting individuals too closely on purpose...this was first and foremost an effort for which credit can be given to everyone involved in the Irish team set up.
Still, there were several standout performances by the boys in green - while we couldn’t say anyone’s was “flawless” per se, any errors that were made got put to bed pretty quickly by more than one positive contribution in each case.
Man of the Match went to Sean O’Brien. Sure, he shipped a few pens. And sure, he swung an arm on our good friend Pape in the opening minutes and could well be staring down a citing. But do we not want our 7 to live on the edge of the Laws of the Game? He certainly put himself about the rest of the match and the French LITERALLY couldn’t handle him, like this time when he forced a mistake from Morgan Parra.
Then there’s Iain Henderson, who is pushing our levels of expectation for him further and further with each involvement on the pitch. Right now there are few at this tournament more “in the zone”. As they say in the southern hemisphere, just “give him the pill” and he’ll make something happen, it’s that simple. Plus when a Rob Kearney clearance didn’t go the desired distance, the man they call “NWJMB” made up for the shortfall with a never-ending tackle.
Next up is Peter O’Mahony, who’s World Cup is now sadly over. Gave absolutely everything for the jersey in the past few weeks despite a few rumblings that perhaps his position was under threat.
Then there’s Robbie Henshaw. Kept his defensive channel solid, forced the turnover that got us out of trouble at the end of the first half and was absolutely monstrous when he got involved going forward. And Bastareaud? Who’s that again? A perceived threat for the French? I think not. Robbie blew by him on the way to forcing the knock on which gave us the scrum that led to Rob Kearney’s try.
I could go on. Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney led the kick-chasing game brilliantly. As for the pack as a unit, well 9/9 scrums and 10/11 lineouts speak for themselves. Rory Best never went missing when required with the ball or without. Perhaps discipline was a bit iffy - Joe won’t be happy with 14 penalties against whatever the outcome.
But what I want to leave for last was contributions from Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray which were small in substance yet huge in value.
First we had Jamie, relatively quiet on the day compared to his opposite number, taking a lineout. The French did the whole “retreating thing” yet Heaslip was not only ready for it but also willing and able to counter by turning around and driving forward. This was clearly something worked on in training as O’Mahony did it in a previous encounter.
From there though we were denied our maul opportunity with that tiny bit of tactical awareness we managed to make it into even better front foot ball and I recorded the sequence of carriers which got the ball to the try line - SOB - Toner - Bowe - Madigan - SOB - Heaslip - McGrath - SOB - McGrath - Henderson - Henry - Best.
We just needed to get the touchdown. And seemingly the French forgot that when you touch the ball to the base of the post padding it counts for 5 points. What’s more, our scrum half didn’t. And that was all she wrote. Match won, pool D topped, All Blacks avoided, Ireland proud as punch.
I was gunning for one style of online comment in particular after the full time whistle. Something along the lines of “OK now everybody relax - we haven’t won anything yet” There always seems to be at least one who goes down that road no matter how epic the victory, but luckily for my credibility, if there was one out there I didn’t see it so I couldn’t respond.
Look...of course we haven’t won anything yet. Of course Argentina pose as much threat to us now as they have in past World Cups. And of COURSE the rising injury count is worrying.
But before yesterday, we knew this was a squad with great weapons at its disposal, a great man at the helm and great systems in place. Now, on top of that, we know what they can get done in adversity.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take that knowledge, stick it in my pocket, and savour this result, not just for Monday, but Tuesday as well. We can look at our prospects for the quarterfinals and beyond on Wednesday.
Congrats to everyone involved in an epic performance that was two years in the planning. But one thing lads - stop calling poor Mads “Gazza” will ye? Paul cried after doing something stupid which let his side down. Ian did the exact opposite of that. JLP
HarpinOnRugby match writeups are brought to you by
THE IRISH RUGBY SUPPORTERS CLUB