Monday, November 21, 2016

IRELAND-9 NEW ZEALAND-21



The saying goes that there are two sides to every story.  But if if that’s true, does it mean both sides carry equal weight?  Is one completely “right” and one “wrong”?  And does it even imply that one viewpoint is a polar opposite of the other?

What if one side has its merits as well as its flaws while the other is, for the want of a better word, deplorable?  Unfortunately I can’t think of an example from “real life” to illustrate what I’m trying to say so let’s instead look at how it relates to Saturday evening’s events at the Aviva Stadium.

After sifting through dozens and dozens of tweets, Facebook comments and posts in a few different WhatsApp groups (sorry Snapchat fans you’re a bridge too far for me!) after the match the opinion on why Ireland lost this match seems to fall into two camps - “Team Blame the Ref” and “Team Blame Ourselves”.

The latter group consisted mostly of those who usually look to “give out” on these occasions whether we win or lose but I’m not looking to focus on George Hook wannabes, now or any other time.  What interested me most on this side of the argument was the notion put forward by some that we “dare not question the officials”.

Eh, why?  Lord knows we judge everything else to do with sport?  Of course we must show respect and particularly in a game like rugby with so many complicated laws we have to appreciate the size of the task facing one man in his 30s/40s chasing around after 30 who are much younger for 80 minutes.  But does that give the ref and his crew a free pass?  I don’t think so.

For me, once you can back up your viewpoint with examples then of course we can question the role the officials played in a result.  And you know what, when we are giving our opinion as fans, so what if it comes with more than a hint of coloured goggles?  That’s what makes this business of harping on rugby so interesting.

Now just to be clear, no - this result isn’t ALL Jaco Peyper’s fault nor his team.  There are several factors, but I wanted to address that point about the ref specifically because while we might have dodged a bullet or two ourselves along the way, I firmly believe the officiating of the visitors’ approach affected the final margin if not the actual result.

Chicago might be known as the Windy City but right from the very kickoff the All Blacks came at us like they brought the gusty weather to Dublin with them and had it at their backs.  Beauden Barrett found Sean O’Brien with his drop kick and we were unable to deal with the onrushing pressure...suddenly the World Champions had front foot ball and the game not a minute old.

Fair play to Seanie, he got himself right back in the thick of the action forcing a turnover after a few phases but while Conor Murray’s decision to kick forward was a good one, the accuracy wasn’t there and it was easily recovered.  From then on our visitors were in full-on “beast” mode and the subsequent try from Fekitoa gave the impression that it could be a long afternoon.

But even in that disappointing start for Ireland there was a positive.  Had we all forgotten why our visitors were so fired up in the first place?  WE did that.  THIS Irish team.  And what’s more, we did it after also conceding the game’s first try.  Say what you like about this Ireland performance, but you cannot say anyone’s heads dropped after that opening score.

One thing that did drop was our first attacking lineout.  New Zealand were appalling at this set piece in Chicago yet once they had their preferred duo of Retallick & Whitelock in their second row it was a different story.  Now we actually did recover the ball after this early spill, but it was still to be significant.

Thanks to a break from Jamie Heaslip and a neat offload to O’Brien, all of a sudden we were on their line looking to all intents and purposes like we were going to cross before a penalty under the posts forced us into a decision, and I reckon that the new lineout threat played a role in our settling for the easy three points.

Still though...it was good to be on the scoreboard so soon after the try, and we played our first attacking position in such a positive fashion that we had every chance of getting down that end to threaten again.

But a point I made in my preview proved to be rather haunting on the day.  “In the backs, Joe has his dream team in both the 9/10 and 12/13 combos.  Simply put, the more minutes those four are on the pitch, the better our chances.”  And this leads us to the first big refereeing call on just 10 minutes in an incident which began the breakup of that particular fantastic four.

My first reaction to Cane’s challenge on Henshaw was one of fear for our player.  I thought another All Black had him by the waist as he spun around and got smashed.  Turns out he wasn’t being held, but still that spin move does rather limit your ability to see what’s there to greet you when you complete your turn.

My first reaction to the hit was that it wasn’t really Cane’s fault.  I don’t ever want to think there’s any maliciousness in a challenge, and how was he to know that Henshaw was going to spin.  But after several watches I have come to realise that the tackle would have been made whatever way our guy was facing, so clearly there was never an intent to go low, which puts us firmly in “reckless” territory.

But even with all of that, it was the first big challenge of the match.  Definitely a penalty and a yellow for that would have been harsh (maybe).  Interesting that the normally-calm Joe Schmidt looked so incensed in the coaches’ box about the fact that only a penalty was given, though his key inside centre being stretchered off so early was also a factor.

So on came Garry Ringrose, and with Jared Payne’s role in the 13 channel so pivotal to Ireland’s defensive setup, the youngster had to slot in at 12 somehow.

Not long afterwards, we might have counted ourselves lucky not to receive a card as Andrew Trimble knocked on an attempted interception off Barrett (even though both could have been yellow however, dangerous tackles and deliberate knockons are kind of in different leagues!) but it was at the resulting scrum where we shipped try number two.


Looking at how our D lined up at the scrum I’m wondering if we were somehow inviting them to score?  Or were we still settling in to Ringrose’s inclusion?  We had to the right of the scrum just three defenders against four All Blacks, expecting Conor Murray to be the fourth tackler running laterally from the set piece (of course he also had to cover the very real possibility of Reid breaking off).  Barrett clearly spotted this (well if I did he HAD to) and backed himself to beat Murray, which he duly did until....

Well, was it a try?  First of all, there is definitely an argument that Sexton’s challenge was itself dangerous...if we rule that way then the grounding doesn’t matter - it’s a penalty try and Sexton himself is in card trouble.  But let’s examine what the officials actually did.

Nothing was said about the Sexton challenge so technically, it was fine.  Peyper asked the TMO if he definitely saw a grounding, to which Jon Mason replied in the positive.  Unless he hails from the planet Krypton I don’t know how he could definitively say he saw leather meet grass.  One angle looks a certain try, the other a certain “held-up” - neither was conclusive.  Yet it was given.  I don't think it should have been,  but perhaps I’m biased!

So there we were - 14-3 down, not even 20 minutes gone, Henshaw off.  What more could possibly go wrong?

Well we still came roaring back at them and as another attack gains momentum, Dane Coles takes Murray out before he picks up the ball.  On its own, this is in yellow territory.  But already the All Black penalty count is higher than it should be.  Rory Best has a word with Peyper about the “cheap shots”.

Maybe this chat was what helped the ref decide to bin Aaron Smith on our next series, though this isn’t for dangerous tackles, rather “breakdown infringements”.  And the sin binning becomes bittersweet as Johnny Sexton is himself forced from the action, having done his hamstring (the other one this time apparently).

Our lineouts are getting marginally better by this stage...the visitors are still making mischief but we are generally able to get the ball away.  Still...we are always under pressure and clearly Steve Hansen’s men were out to shake us off our set moves at every turn.

Then we have a great position with a scrum 5m out (as another key man is forced off in CJ Stander).  The All Blacks did have a bit of a nudge on us, but still we were retaining the ball and while it was Kieran Reid who was pinged for releasing his bind, for me the infringer was Squire who seemed to cynically fall on the ball at the base of the scrum preventing us from using it.

But even if Reid was the only transgressor, there’s still a case for yellow given the attacking nature of the scrum at that time.  Which brings us to one of my biggest bugbears with officiating these days...a reluctance to bin a second player.  Doesn’t matter what team it is, even Leinster or Ireland.  If the offence warrants a yellow, you must go.  Six-odd minutes against 13 All Blacks would not have been easy by a long stretch, but it certainly would've been easiER as the remainder of the match showed.

Again we felt it better to go for the option of 3 points, and even though that was our only score while they were down a man, being “just the” eight points down at the interval left me with a decent amount of hope that we could turn things around.

Sure enough, we came out of the blocks strongly in the second half.  Aaron Smith was having another mare with some poor kicking and we were putting together some decent phases and making some significant yardage.  Often the Kiwi defensive net was strong but at one point, we found a little gap out wide which Simon Zebo tried to exploit until...

Yes, it was another high tackle.  This time, it was Fekitoa.  On its own without a second look and even without all the other high shots, this was a yellow.  But - eh, how about a review?  This clearly reveals a swinging arm.  It’s swinging and it connects at neck level.  Sorry mate, but you should be off.

There’s a lot of controversy about the final pass from TJ Perenera before the third All Black try, and as Rory Best said himself at the time, it was worth a look by the TMO because there was “too much at stake”.  But that was one of those tries with several amazing offloads that you almost wish to be legal even if it’s against your team.

What actually annoyed me most about that try was the fact that Fekitoa got it - he shouldn’t be on the park.  And clearly the citing commissioner thinks there was something to look at; both in his challenge and that of Cane’s, though of course that is of no use to Ireland now.

So defeat it was to be.  Three converted tries definitely beats three penalties every time.  And it’s true, we could have done with a bit more accuracy at times...we were nowhere near as clinical as we had been in Chicago.  Over two-thirds domination in both possession and territory should get you into double figures on the scoreboard whatever the opposition, especially in front of a home crowd.

But if you ignore the refereeing decisions, and if you ignore the way the All Blacks upped their game (as well as the height of their tackles), and if you ignore the fact that we were the reason WHY they upped their game, and if you ignore the fact that we lost three key players in the opening 20 minutes, and if you ignore some monumental performances from the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best (really taking to this test captaincy lark very well I must say), Tadhg Furlong (owns that 3 jersey now), Sean O’Brien from the start plus Paddy Jackson, Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose off the bench….

….then, well, *sigh*.

I see some challenges ahead for our squad.  We need to explore some solid cover for that 9-10-12-13 axis.  Carbery and Ringrose are a good start but I’m not wild about our starting alternatives at scrum half or inside centre.  There is definitely a lot for us to work on.

But I am proud of our displays in these two matches against one of the finest squads ever assembled in the sport. Much was made of the fact that we put 5 tries past them in Chicago, which is as much as they conceded for the entire Rugby Championship.  Well Saturday was also the first time in a good while they failed to score four or more in a match, and after 20 minutes that did not look possible.

If some of our own fans don’t know we gave them one hell of a battle for 160 minutes, you can be sure the All Blacks themselves do.  The Lions wouldn’t turn down our results and performances for the first two tests next summer, that’s for sure.

Well done to Joe & co, let’s finish off November in style against the Wallabies next week, and then it’s on to a promising Six Nations.  JLP

PS Many many many thanks once more to the Aviva Fan Studio for letting me tag along to watch the match - it was actually my first time ever seeing the All Blacks live!  A great day was had despite the result.

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