*imagine me saying the above with a menacing face*
Now that I have set the proper tone, I can proceed with harping on this final match in Ireland’s 2016 Six Nations campaign, one which saw Ireland secure a second home win in as many matches, fittingly either side of St Patrick’s Day.
It has been a word oft used of late, by myself included I must admit, but perhaps “bully” is a bit strong when it comes to describing what we see on a rugby pitch. Maybe we can go so far as to say it isn’t very “politically correct”, as bullying is a very serious topic and seriously impacts on the lives of people of all ages,
To best describe the concept we’re talking about, how about I make reference to a hit US cop show from the 1980’s called “Hill Street Blues”. At the end of a morning announcement to all on-duty police officers, Sergeant Stan Jablonski would proclaim : “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us”.
Now that Ireland’s methodical approach under Joe Schmidt has garnered not one but two Six Nations titles in a row, there has been little doubt that the other teams have worked out to knock us off our game in the early stages of matches, which is why we have seen a host of incidents varying in seriousness from prolonged holding at ruck time to full on cheap shots on Johnny Sexton long after he got the ball away.
That’s not to say I’m “whining” about that kind of attention...far from it. When your opponents target you like that it means you’re doing something right. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it, and from the start of this match it was clear we had made a decision to assert ourselves.
For the first ten minutes, our carries were breaking the gain line, our clear outs were well timed, our ball presentation was spot on, and our use of the ball for the next phase was swift. It seems a bit strange typing all of that because it is what everyone is expecting us to do anyway, but you have to see those sequences in action to know what I mean. We were playing as a unit and there was very little the Scots could do to stop us.
Before I go on, a word on the visitors re : six-day turnaround. Much was made of the fact that in Week 2 of this year’s championship we had just the six days to prepare for a trip to Paris. I was among those point that out, so was Joe Schmidt. So in the interest of fairness it should be noted that after their impressive win over France they too had six days to prepare for travel.
However, any such harm a turnaround like that can inflict shouldn’t be present in the opening ten minutes. And apart from their two victories on the bounce, a feature of Scotland’s campaign to this point was the fact that they were the least penalised team of the six. Well the way we approached the opening exchanges at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday left the visitors with two options - start shipping some pens or you will start shipping some points. So they went for option A.
There are of course some aspects of this early strategy of ours that are key...one is that you have to back up your early domination with points. And with Sexton missing one of his four early kicks and a slow roll away from Mike Ross giving Greig Laidlaw a chance to pull one back, a six point lead was scarcely enough reward for our early assertions.
Another thing you have to ensure is that you make precious few mistakes yourselves, and when a box kick from Conor Murray went a lot further than it should have (very unusual from him as he is one of the best in the game at the manoeuvre), it fell into the arms of the bang-in-form Scottish full back Stuart Hogg.
In sequences like this I imagine a “Terminator-style” vision in players like Hogg. Before him as he views the line of tacklers ahead a computer readout appears in his vision saying things like “Calculating best possible route….” “Two front rowers (Best and Ross) side-by-side identified...” “Plan of action : Run at pace between them, add show-and-go if necessary”.
This is precisely what he did, and it was an extremely well taken try. But best of the championship, as claimed by many on Twitter right after? Pure Hogg-wash. Jamie still has that locked down.
So just like that, after all that early dominance, territory and possession (up around the 90% mark at one stage), we’re down by a point on the scoreboard with the first quarter done and dusted. That could certainly knock the stuffing out of a lot of teams at any level.
But for a side that was criticised for lacking in leadership, we somehow found a way to pick up right back where we left off going forward with the ball. And here is where we get into an area I feel needs addressing...the protocols surrounding a referee issuing a “warning”.
On 11 minutes, Pascal Gauzere has a chat with Laidlaw about all the infringements. Not just penalties in general, but specifically ones in the “red zone” which were slowing down Irish advances. So why, about ten minutes later when Ireland mauled their way into the 22, did the penalty drawn by the Scots not produce a card? Was that not the only course of action for the ref at that point?
In this instance, it didn’t matter too much, as the penalty was kicked for the corner (another good positive sign of intent) before another lineout, maul and series of phases on the line tempted John Barclay into a no-no which gave the ref little choice but to reach for his pocket.
So then we had another pen, another lineout, another maul, more pressure. With an excellent “quarterback sneak”- (or even perhaps Springbok-?) style leap over the ruck, CJ Stander finally got us the try we deserved.
Before we continue on the scoring...in the lead up to that Stander try the ref had his arm out for another penalty. I would be very interested to know whether or not he’d have sent another Scot to the bin had we not gone over. It won’t surprise you that I reckon he should have, though it wouldn’t have surprised me if he hadn’t.
Anyway a couple of minutes later we were piling on the pressure again only this time it was a pinpoint lob by Sexton into the 22 which made for an awkward bounce which Seymour and Hogg had to deal with...neither could and the result was it fell nicely for Keith Earls to dot down, the perfect way to celebrate your 50th cap.
Now we were 11 points up and well in control. We still had something to play for however. Victory by 15 points or more would guarantee the maximum amount of world ranking points which are crucial these days because they will determine the order of seedings for the World Cup 2019 draw. So when a couple of late breakdown penalties gave Laidlaw the chance to reduce our lead to just 8 going into the break, it meant we had to keep our forward momentum going even further.
There is one thing about the whole “assertion/bullying” tactic that can go against you, especially for a team like Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. If you put it up to your opponents there’s every chance they’re going to fight back, and once this happens you may not find it so easy to focus on the finer points of your own game plan, being so busy fending off digs and swipes from all angles.
Scotland clearly decided to get more heavily involved in the second half from an aggression standpoint, but not too long after the break we found our way into their 22 again. We were mauling our way to their line when the ref tells John Barclay he’s not legally part of the maul. The Scot gives the ref a funny look, but not only does he fail to attempt to leave the maul to re-enter correctly, he proceeds to grab another Irishman in the back. For me, that’s a possible yellow on its own, a definite yellow based on the prior warning, and in his particular case, would have been red.
It’s definitely a side issue, but one I feel need to be sorted, as Ireland have seen it before in recent times against Warburton, Herrera and now Barclay (yes, I’m sure there have been Irishmen involved in this too but I’ll let other country’s bloggers highlight them). A yellow card should never give you immunity for the rest of the match should you get caught infringing again. End of. And the best way to send that message would be to actually flash a red in a high-profile contest when it’s warranted.
Anyway....going back to this match, once more the infringements didn’t really “matter” as eventually we made it over the line...this time it was Conor Murray spotting a gap to dive through, the third time he has done so in this championship.
Now we had the lead at that magic 15 points, and it was one we needed to protect if not build on, but like I said, the Scots were very much a different proposition to the Italians a week before, and they came back at us with everything they had. Our defence was holding up pretty well, particularly down the middle with Jared Payne again impressing with his accurate shooting out of the line, promptly putting disappointing Scottish outhalf Duncan Weir on his backside at one point.
But persist they did and when they finally had some red zone possession themselves, they were able to make the most of it by doing what so many others have done to exploit our “narrow” defence….get it towards one touchline before flinging it quickly in the other direction. On this occasion, however, it was skipper Rory Best making a decision to leave his line that was far from Payne’s standards and Richie Gray was able to just walk over.
So now the lead was back to eight. Still two scores required, but still enough to make us anxious about being caught. The visitors for all their second half tenacity had contributed to their own downfall with errors around the park before this point; we kind of needed another to extend our margin again and Alex Dunbar obliged.
Let me be clear about this next part. I don’t like exaggerated injuries any more than the next guy. I tend not to be one to go for the way-overused “that’s too much like soccer” line as many do, but the whole “rolling around on the pitch” thing is never pretty.
But given the strong backlash against what Sexton did after being flung out of a ruck by Dunbar, I feel I have to play the role of his defender and offer mitigation.
Sexton has been punched, elbowed, tackled long after the ball is gone, had hands held to his neck at the bottom of a ruck, and probably many other things that weren’t clearly visible in TV replays in this tournament. And while we often did get penalties, the fact that our key playmaker (having another impressive outing in this area with pinpoint kicking and flawless use of the “wraparound”) was clearly being targeted seemed to be getting ignored by officials at all levels.
OK, maybe he did over-react to being grabbed and tossed over the shoulder. But I put it to you, “your honour”, that perhaps he felt that nothing would have been done if he didn’t draw attention to it. And my overall point is that if we refer to this incident, we CANNOT make it ALL about his reaction, because adding context paints an entirely different (and more accurate) picture.
As it turned out, he didn’t need the theatrics at all, as using the TMO helped the officials get the call for a yellow card spot on. After kicking to the corner, we put the pressure back on the Scottish line and with yet another penalty advantage coming, a quality offload from Heaslip to Toner saw the giant lock dive over the line.
I’m not too sure what happened after the dot down but there was quite the “shamozzle” over the try line (Gauzere’s little chat to Heaslip and Laidlaw was priceless) and the scrappiness continued right to the end.
This together with all the substitutions took our eye off the ball enough to allow Dunbar over for a consolation at the death though the way the match progressed there’s every possibility we could have scored yet again if there was time. It wasn’t to be however and we had to make do with a 10-point winning margin.
I have left individual performances to this far down the page because I was mostly impressed with the team effort from the off, but several did stand out. You can’t claim to have successfully “bullied” your opposition without a good outing from your back row and all three starters for Ireland were superb. Jamie with his consistent gain-line breaking was well deserving of his man-of-the-match gong and if the Six Nations had a “best newcomer” award then CJ Stander is up there.
O’Donnell impressed as well but shipped a couple of pens in the second half and there’s no doubt Sean O’Brien would be welcomed back to the 7 position for Ireland. If anyone might be nervous about getting back into the side I reckon it is Peter O’Mahony.
Elsewhere I thought our starting locks had another solid outing. When your intention is to be intimidating, I can think of noone better to have in my pack than Donncha Ryan and I liked the way he was goading the Scots to put in to their own lineouts much as Jim Hamilton had done in previous contests.
And speaking of set pieces...much was made of the Scottish front row but the thing about having an advantage in that area is that you need to have the scrum put-ins to make the most of it...Vern Cotter’s men had just the two on the day and with 7 for 7 we were solid enough on our own ball.
OK I have harped on for long enough, though I have one tiny query...if Ian Madigan wasn’t to be used at the Aviva, why wasn’t he given to Leinster for the trip to Glasgow? No offence to Cathal Marsh but we could have definitely done with him over there.
Anyway, I’ll look at our overall championship and prospects for the immediate future later in the week. Thanks for sticking with me this far down the page despite my opening paragraph...hey, maybe it works for blogging as well as rugby! JLP
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