Since I often use the #TrustJoe hashtag, going by a lot of the online discourse (remember - these are Irish fans), that makes me one of his unquestioning disciples. Well I must thank the many commentators who were so eager after the full time whistle blew in Paris to offer a template for my writeup! Because clearly my unwavering loyalty was blinding me from seeing the match for what it was...
I harped on this “people think Joe is the Messiah” nonsense last week so I won’t go too heavily into it now, but it really is extremely annoying. A world where everyone agreed with each other would be a boring one, but you’d at least think that among Irish fans there might be a general consensus to make criticism constructive not spiteful, but there you have it…even on Valentine’s weekend in Paris you’re not guaranteed to be “shown the love”!!!
Just two more points would have won Ireland this match, but since you can’t score two at one go, let’s call it three. You can’t look at that 80 minutes of rugby and not concede that Ireland left a lot more than three points behind in the Stade de France. So yes, I will have some things to say about our attacking game plan for the day.
But I can assure you I won’t be doing it because I have been waiting in the tall grass to take pot shots at a coach simply because I have chosen not to like him. I will be doing it because I see it as a part of what actually happened on the day. Just a part. If you have even a tiny amount of objectivity you’ll have to admit that the failure to secure those extra three points wasn’t entirely Ireland’s fault.
Anyway, to the action. The French were truly, truly awful in the first half in particular, and in more ways than one. Their starting outhalf Plisson’s boot might have spared their blushes against Italy the week before but there were barely two minutes on the clock and he had already put in two terrible kicks.
Meanwhile, it looked as though we were set for a start very similar to that we had against the Welsh. And clearly a combination of the midweek DVD sessions and the wet conditions on the day convinced Jonathan Sexton that launching a high garryowen into the French 22 with the “Henshayne” centre pairing running after it was a sure way to get results.
And guess what, in just the 4th minute, it did. Or at least Robbie Henshaw made the catch. That was great, and clearly a product of many hours on the training ground, but a penalty, lineout and a few phases later, it was Henshaw himself knocking it on.
Not to worry, we’ll be back, I thought. And indeed we were. Only another time we get pinged for our lineout encroaching over the 15m limit - our second failed attacking lineout in the opening minutes. Another time Sexton and McCarthy bobbled a simple enough exchange. Another time Jared Payne dropped a pass.
I could go on, but I won’t. The list was quite long...we were trying things, they were things that had worked for us before on several occasions, but on this day the things were not working. Personally I had a particular problem with that high ball into the 22...maybe it was retrieved the first time, but as we kept going back to it, the French kept getting better at dealing with it.
So please let the record show that I do hold the opinion we made some questionable choices on the attacking front. I mean...it’d be hard not to; just look at the Six Nations table. 6th out of 6 in points scored. Nuff said. To be fair, you certainly cannot point to our 6th ranked offence without also mentioning our 2nd-ranked defence. 26 points conceded in two matches is good going, and it is the principal justification for the centre combination in which Joe has put so much faith. I understand this faith, I really do.
However my problem with the overall strategy is that it seems to rely on both Henshaw and Payne playing 80 minutes in every match? Even when there’s a 6-day turnaround? When both are just returning from injury? Surely if Joe has the ability to “mould” the two fullbacks into a dynamic centre duo performing specific tasks, he can do the same with others to take their place when needed?
Now I know Payne played for about half an hour with a crook leg because there was nobody but Eoin Reddan to physically replace him, but my point is that even with a full bench there was nobody who could have really taken over the role he has. Perhaps we should either look at cloning this role in another player, or having a more “conventional” (at least these days) type of outside centre to call on.
To be fair to them, they had some decent carries on the day particularly on power plays. But on yet another weekend when tries were so hard to come by for the boys in green, it’s tough as a fan to see other teams getting scores from the likes of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Joseph without wondering what might have been if we were set up in a similar fashion.
Now to look at the role of Mr J Sexton, the very key to our attacking mindset. Just how many times in recent years has he left the pitch in a big match with his team in the lead only to end up on the losing side?
When it comes to his physical ability to play, I defer completely to the medical professionals, not to curmudgeonly columnists. If he is passed fit, he should play, end of.
But...I really do feel he needs to take a look at his decision-making, and here I’m going to have to apologise because I’m about to make a comparison to the round-ball game. My favourite team in the Premiership is Tottenham Hotspur (not too ashamed to admit it when they’re actually doing well!) and their star player at the moment is a striker called Harry Kane.
On the rare occasions I get the chance to watch Spurs play these days, my biggest criticism of Kane is that he tries too hard to do what is essentially someone else’s job. Often you’ll see him bully a full-back out of possession, which is great, take it to the by-line, also great, and put in a decent cross, great again. The only problem with all of this is that he happens to be the Spurs player most qualified to be on the end of said cross.
The same goes for Sexton. I think it is brilliant that he can stand up to tackles no matter how bulky the frame of the onrushing attacker. I think it is brilliant that he has worked on his body strength enough to be able to not only contribute to but also create a “choke tackle” manoeuvre (though I’m starting to think the refs are trying to phase it out).
But with this willingness to roll up his sleeves and “get stuck in” comes a price...should his exploits force a turnover, who is going to be in a position to make the most hay from it? And in the worst case scenario, as we saw on Saturday and many times before, how much can he affect the play when he is on the bench?
OK - whether I have “satisfied” those who assumed the likes of Joe and Johnny were immune to criticism or not I don’t really care...the subject of Sexton brings me “nicely” on to the two horrendous tackles in the first half that should have seen some kind of sanction.
Put quite simply, Maestri on Sexton was premeditated while Guirado on Dave Kearney was reckless. Both should have resulted in yellow cards at the very least. Both should have been properly examined by the TMO. We can debate whether or not Ireland would have found those extra three points with the home side down a man until the cows come home, but for the record, I say we would have done.
Why weren’t those challenges dealt with more severely? Who knows. All I do know is that there was a large amount of irony in referee Jaco Peyper preaching to Sexton about “rugby values” at one point. And can someone please explain how citings are going to serve us with any kind of justice?
I suppose in some ways we should be flattered at the “dark arts” approach of the French, as it demonstrated their appreciation of our superiority, understandable as we had a few wins on the bounce against them going into Saturday’s match. But it certainly does them no credit.
Then we have the scrums. For the second week in a row, when we find ourselves on our own line and get ourselves into penalty-try territory before the opposition breach our line. Does this mean we have serious problems in our tight eight? Especially considering our next match is in a stadium where we had our biggest ever disaster in this facet of the game?
Personally I’m thinking not so much. We were actually 8 for 8 on our own put ins. Maybe once or twice we struggled to secure the ball but we still managed it. If you told me going into a Six Nations Championship that we were destined to concede just one try per match and each time it was due to scrum pressure around our own line, I’d take that, because I’d hope to get more points down the other end, see paragraphs above.
Having said that, Mike Ross can’t come back into the setup fast enough, and if he was fit to start for Leinster, I don’t see why he couldn’t at least have been on the bench in Paris. Plus, that overhead camera at scrum time showed the replacement French front row in particular had some interesting interpretations of a straight bind.
On the French try…a slip by Henshaw didn’t help us it’s true, but I have to say I was surprised they didn’t persevere with the set scrums because we were set to have a prop sent to the bin. Still, the fact remains that for all our tactical superiority, they got the ball over the line while we didn’t.
A word now on Devin Toner...on a day of tight margins, he certainly drew unnecessary attention to himself towards the end of the first half, shipping a silly pen which got the French on the board then dropping a restart which led to a pen which nearly got them another three.
Plus if we’re focusing on individual errors, we can’t ignore Ian Madigan’s kick out on the full to restart after the French try. We had ten minutes to claw our way back, yet thanks to that mistake we spent every second of that time in our own half.
And last, but certainly not least, those blasted injuries again!!! I have said more than once that for all of our failings against Argentina, we can’t ignore the fact we were without Sexton, O’Brien, O’Connell, O’Mahony, Bowe & Payne at the time. When you factor in Jared’s dodgy leg, the same effectively applied to us at the end in Paris. Again I feel I must point out...this isn’t about making excuses, it’s about pointing out what actually happened.
There is no doubt that the quest for a third Championship would appear to be over. I’m sure if I got a slide rule I could work out a way that 7 points can top the table.
But in the real world, what I’m looking for is an improved attacking game plan against England, Italy and Scotland. Even if that means shipping a few more points down the other end? Tough one that, but overall, yes.
Do we need to change some personnel around? Well, the injuries will pretty much dictate the answer to that question. I suppose the real topic for debate should be...do we also factor in tactical changes given the poor return of points scored?
A lot is being made, particularly in Leinster, of the young talent breaking through into the senior ranks. But as much as I’m in favour of the “Cullen’s Cubs” concept, I do think it is possible to over-simplify that argument, and you can see it in a lot of comments - “top players bad, young players good”.
Of course it is true that a lot of these prospects will have to start being factored into the national setup as part of the “cycle” leading up to RWC2019. But with injuries already forcing changes, do we need to overhaul the team with new players for a trip to Twickers? I honestly can’t see that as being anything but a knee-jerk reaction.
However, I don’t think it would hurt to look at offering a bench position, say the number 23 jersey, to someone who might be destined to step up into the full test squad in the future. I’m going to recommend two names for this...Stuart McCloskey and Garry Ringrose. I have listed them in alphabetical order. Hopefully that satisfied those who are looking for my Leinster-led Joe-as-Messiah bias! ;-)
All joking aside...nobody who can claim to take sport seriously can ever suggest that any one person, player, coach, whatever, is above criticism. The thing with Joe Schmidt is that since he has been coaching in Ireland, he has barely put a foot wrong, or at least not wrong enough to stop the flow of trophies coming in our direction. Perhaps his spell at Leinster didn’t have the flow going in a direction some would have liked and that is why they’re gunning for him now? Perhaps we’ll never know.
What I do know is that he is definitely our guy to lead us to RWC2019. He has a vision for his job, he seems determined to see it through, and he certainly knows how to win.
I won’t stop harping on the areas where I see things differently, but I do believe he has earned the right to be given a chance to fix what’s gone wrong over the coming weeks, and from then on with a tried & tested defensive coach in the frame once more, the road ahead can look a whole lot brighter. Hopefully the majority of Irish fans agree. JLP
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