With Super Rugby kicking off this weekend, we’ve been getting our first chance to directly compare the way the game is played in the two hemispheres since the World Cup, and we don’t need reminding of how that went.
Anyway...the biggest “beef” about the style found in the Six Nations is that it is boring and lacking in tries...though while the latter is true, the former is purely a matter of opinion. I’d be more inclined to enjoy a game where the reason tries were hard to come by was well-organised defence by both sides. For my taste, a game with 5 tries per team doesn’t hold water if the tackling and positioning are “all over the shop”.
There are a number of different ways a defensive set-up can frustrate their opposition’s attempts to get anywhere with the ball, and increasingly over time the use of the boot has become a potent weapon. If a defender finds himself in a legal position and is being “cleared out” by attackers, he is within his rights to have a poke or two with his foot to try and disrupt attempts to present the ball for the next phase.
I get that.
Also there’s been a long-standing rugby tradition of “raking” or “shoeing”, whereby if you see a player on the deck doing something they shouldn’t with the ball, like a defender lying in the way or an attacker trying illegally to protect it, the boot can be used to “politely remind” them to think twice before doing it again.
I get that too.
No prizes for guessing where I’m going with this...but before I continue, I want to make something clear. I’m not highlighting the Mike Brown incident because I feel it defined the match nor because I felt it determined the result. I’m doing it because the way we deal with incidents like these are more important than rugby.
Courtesy of a superb spell of possession that included over a dozen phases and key contributions from test debutantes Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier, we got ourselves deep into the English 22 and a try at that point would have given us a very good chance to get another and wipe out that 11-point deficit.
Within 5m of the line the move is halted by English players and Danny Care is pinged for slowing down the ball but plays goes on with the advantage coming. Conor Murray takes the ball and puts himself in that gray area between illegally holding it and legally presenting it.
Mike Brown (nothing against him as a player btw) is standing in a position whereby he can legally use his foot to wrest the ball free, only the ball happens to be beside Conor’s head. The first swipe hits Murray but not hard. After the swipe he flails it about a bit and as he draws it back, his boot catches Murray’s face and actually draws blood. Then as Brown is being cleared out he goes and uses his other boot to have a couple more hacks at the ball. Murray at this stage has gathered the ball in, technically illegally though I reckon he’s probably more concerned about the blow to his head.
Whether I’d be saying the same if the jersey colours were reversed is up to yourself. If it helps, I have tried to be consistent in this area over the years, even going as far back as 2010 when Jamie Heaslip applied his knee to Richie McCaw’s head, and more recently an incident involving Paul O’Connell and Dave Kearney.
Having viewed the footage, the TMO ruled that Brown’s actions were not intentional, as if there were only two options to consider. I won’t harp on this for too much longer, just enough to say that it clearly wasn’t intentional, but it was most certainly “reckless” and with head injuries in particular meant to be such an important area in the sport, this type of high-profile incident needs to be dealt with swiftly.
It shouldn’t matter how the match stands at that point. It shouldn’t matter if someone else has already received a yellow card. It shouldn’t matter what “understandings” the sport in question has about that situation. It shouldn’t matter that there’s upwards of 70k English fans watching in the stands. The message should be clear that it is not right to do that. And it wasn’t. Simple.
[UPDATE – I see on the “twitter machine” that it has been confirmed Brown will NOT be cited.]
Now to (literally) draw a line under that and get on with the match.
Given what had happened in the previous rounds, the challenge for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland at Twickenham was three-fold...1) find a way to consistently create space & opportunities when we have the ball 2) turn that space and opportunities into points, and 3) accomplish 1 & 2 without compromising our defence.
We lost by 11 points, so clearly we can’t award “A”’s in all three categories, but let’s deal with them one at a time anyway and see how we get on.
Our offensive plan was spot on. In fact, I’d be very close to giving it an A (settling on B+ for those keeping score), with Johnny Sexton at the heart of pretty much everything that worked for us. Yes, we fell down on execution more than once but that’s the second point. The strategy both made sense and had something for everyone.
In the first half, it was the “old chestnut” of the box kick. Some, particularly from Conor Murray who usually excels in this area, went a little too far. But more often than not, the catcher of the ball, usually Mike Brown, was tackled where he took it and ultimately was unable to advance the ball.
When it came to the second half, I was afraid we’d go back to this method until we cracked it, which is pretty much how other matches had gone. But we did something very different - actually looking to pass the ball! (I’m being facetious here btw - that “no passing” narrative is spun to death in other places, not here)
To combat the English line speed our backs would arrange themselves at practically a 45-degree angle from the scrum half and with the ball moving quickly and accurately through the hands, it gave us the option of finding space to run into either in the wide channels or down the middle, thus keeping the defence guessing. It was an extremely well-thought out strategy that had us winning both the territory and possession battles, over 70% in the second half in each case.
Yet for all the praise we can heap on the team in the first category, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room that is the second. Just one try and ten points was all we had to show for that dominance. It wasn’t entirely our fault and I’ll get to that, but there is simply no point starting a move, especially at this level, if you’re not able to finish and between dropped balls, misfired passes and that old bugbear - poor lineout technique at key moments, we certainly didn’t help our own cause.
Still, there is plenty of mitigation over our inability to score, which is why I’m giving us a C- honours grade overall. First and foremost, England’s defence was as stingy as we would expect and while we had quality debutantes on our side, the home side did too in the form of Maro Itoje who clearly has a bright future ahead of him and led his team with 16 tackles.
Then we have the times we came so tantalisingly close yet were denied by a tremendous last-ditch tackle by Nowell on Henshaw and a ball held up by Daly to deny van der Flier (though I reckon he did get it down and the ref asked the wrong question).
Which brings us to M Romain Poite. He got a lot wrong for both sides I’m sure but I’ll let the English fan sites deal with their end of the equation. Over in our Vine account, I singled out three random instances….one where Marler messed with his bind and the match not even a minute old, another where Robshaw got away with clear offside simply by putting up his hands (this happened in an area very kickable for Sexton) and one where Clifford got heaps of praise for forcing a penalty even though he had been taken off his feet by Heaslip.
Some might say that England did get two yellow cards and we should be happy with that. What I’m doing here isn’t so much crying foul rather showing that our inability to move our side of the scoreboard wasn’t entirely our own doing.
The home side also seemed to be doing what they could to knock us off our game. I’m keen to separate this from the Brown incident - what I’m talking about here are little niggly things around the park, like Dan Cole man-handling McCloskey after the tackle in the first half and Owen Farrell doing likewise to CJ Stander in the second.
I’m not saying these actions are necessarily dirty. What I am saying is that if we are to persist with the way we play we need to be ready for this as it is getting results and such antics are pretty much bred into the Springboks against whom we must play three tests in June. It wouldn’t hurt for us to give a bit of it back as well, and perhaps our incoming defensive coach is just the guy we’ll need for this.
FInally, a look at our defence. Overall, I’m giving it a B. We got hit with two quick tries in the second half for reasons very similar to those which saw us fall to Argentina...a tendency to find ourselves narrow in the middle of the park leaving space out wide to reward quick passing across the English line.
But what got England those tries more was their readiness to spring into action given half a sniff of an opportunity (namely after a dropped pass by Sexton and a needless penalty shipped by van der Flier), and this has been a constant string to their bow going back to the Lancaster era. Outside of that purple patch of scoring however, they found it very difficult to organically find a way through our green wall.
Their most potent force was man of the match Billy Vunipola. He was used effectively both as a crash runner and a decoy to draw tacklers with a receiver on his shoulder. He was definitely hard to stop, yet when we did get him down even though he would have broken the gain line, more often than not we managed to handle the overall situation, particularly at the end of the first half when we were under constant siege yet couldn’t buy our way out of our own 22.
Apart from Sexton, the others to catch the eye were all of the “newbies” van der Flier, McCloskey and Dillane, all of whom did more than enough to see out this Six Nations campaign. Donncha Ryan led the tackle charts with 18, and while his box-kicking radar was off kilter, Conor Murray’s sniping has gotten both of our tries in these three matches. Leinster-bound Robbie Henshaw showed he can play just as well at 13 as he can at 12.
There seems to be a lot of what I call “YouTube punditry” about the internet (well, even more than usual) whereby individual performances are being praised based on single, stand-out instances and criticized based on the lack of them - but having watched back over the match I reckon everyone contributed well at some point and it was a decent concerted effort as a team that just didn’t have that finishing touch.
One theme that is bubbling under the surface surrounds Rory Best’s captaincy. Personally, I think changing his role now would make no sense whatsoever. The three matches haven’t gone great for him it’s true but let’s see where things stand when we get back from South Africa. Leadership may be an issue, but we want to be encouraging it from more among the 15 on the park rather than taking it away from anyone.
Look...there’s no sugar coating it, this has been a poor Six Nations for us, and with all due respect to Italy and Scotland (I seem to use that phrase a lot at this time of year) home wins over them won’t make it seem much better, should we earn them of course.
But you can’t watch this 80 minutes and say Ireland were never in the contest. Fair play to the BBC for their post match headline which claimed that “England edged Ireland” as the final margin was in no way a true reflection on the match.
And when Joe Schmidt says in his press conference that he hopes the Irish fans have faith in his squad to continue working their way back towards the kind of performance, accuracy and results he’s more used to getting in matches like these, I reckon we’re better served doing just that, as opposed to spinning it as another opportunity to put the boot in. JLP
#COYBIG #ShoulderToShoulder #TrustJoe #OnwardsAndUpwards
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