Monday, February 06, 2017

SCOTLAND-27 IRELAND-22



Failure and excuses have gone hand in hand since people were first able to talk to one another.  When we do stuff right, we’re happy to take credit for it.  When we don’t, we look around us.

And over time, excuses have become so commonplace that some of them can’t be believed even if they are true.  What if you can’t pay now because the cheque really IS in the post?  Or what if you’re late for work because there really WERE leaves on the rail line?

It’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this, right?  The Irish team coach was delayed getting to Murrayfield by 15 minutes, and any team run by Joe Schmidt needs pretty much everything to go smoothly before kickoff if it is to function properly.

So that’s that...we lost because our bus was late.  No need for anything further, right?  Grand, so.  See you next week, hope the Roman buses are better organised!!!

Now, as the Scottish fans click away from the page to give me abuse on social media, allow me to remove tongue from cheek and get to what really happened on Saturday.

Obviously nobody with any sense is actually blaming the bus. If I had to take a well known “excuse” and adapt it to describe what happened in that first half an hour, I’d say it was more a case of 15 Scottish terriers eating our homework.

“Come to my training sessions, learn how to do ABC and XYZ, replicate that out on the pitch, and hey presto, we win.”

That is how I tried to concisely describe “Schmidtball” in my match preview.  Of course it’s not quite that simple...there are a couple of further key elements to be considered.  One is that the players have to buy into it, and it would be hard to argue that since he took over in 2013 he has had nothing but the fullest support from everyone he has selected.

But then comes the tricky third element - the one you can’t control.  All the preparation in the world only gets you as far as the moment you cross the whitewash onto the pitch.  From then on, you have another coach’s game plan to contend with, and you never really know how things are going to turn out until the two approaches come together.

Naturally there are tweaks made to suit different opposition and playing styles, but the fundamentals of our game under Joe are usually more or less the same, and can be devastating when applied.  Take our use of the ball in open play.  We get our strong ball carriers to crash past the gainline allowing our backs to spread out and execute an orchestrated move.  But here’s the thing...what if that initial crash isn’t happening?

There is no doubt we had the right ball carriers to execute that plan, like CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien in the forwards, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in the backs.  But for that first half an hour, the metres after the hit simply weren’t coming.  It was almost as though Vern Cotter’s men knew what we were going to do and found a way to prevent those metres being made...

Meanwhile, we were having instant success with our scrum.  The loss of WP Nel was arguably as big a deal for Scotland as Johnny Sexton was for us, and we positively mulched them from the very first set piece.  Thing is though...you have to find a way to turn that advantage into points and we couldn’t in those opening exchanges.

According to the official stats we only lost two lineouts on the day...I think they need to rethink how they frame those numbers.  It’s not enough to clarify who has possession after the dart is thrown.  The aim is to get “clean” ball, and the Gray brothers were doing a lot to negate our scrum advantage by causing havoc at the resulting lineout, crucially in their own 22.

OK, so things aren’t so hot for us when we had the ball….how about our plans to deal with the home side’s time in possession?

Again, we have a set philosophy that we live by, and it relies heavily on the “risk v reward” principle.  Bunching defenders around the breakdown can definitely leave you vulnerable out wide, but with good speed across the line, this should rarely be an issue.

That’s all very well, but when the opposing outhalf is positioned a good ten yards away from his 9, it clearly looks as though the plan is to at very least have a go at getting the most out of that space being left out wide.  And right from the get-go, Laidlaw and Russell between them were hell bent on hitting us in those wide channels.

Maybe on account of our frustration, we were making some poor decisions in those early stages as well.  Like when Keith Earls went to tidy up a ball in his own 22.  He had Rob Kearney behind him further infield, in a much better position to find a good touch-finding angle; he even favours his left foot “to boot”.  Instead Earls took the kick himself with his right and it barely made it out of the 22.  Before Munster fans come a-roaring at me, I know he could very well have been told by his full-back to clear it.

Now, Scotland have good attacking ball, and once again they’re keen to get it out wide...eventually having again set up well outside his scrum half, Russell sends a long pass towards Hogg.  Now if he meant for it to sail over the diving interception attempt of Ringrose and bounce into his full back’s arms, more power to him.  But I’m going to say there was a teeny bit of luck involved in the trajectory of that pass!  Still, as the saying goes, you make your own luck and it didn’t really matter how it got there...they had two men unopposed to receive it.  7-0 to Scotland.

Immediate response from Ireland...just like that we’re attacking in their 22, thanks in part to Sean O’Brien actually making a bust through their defensive line.  Hamish Watson is well off his feet tussling for the ball about 5m from their line...penalty for Ireland.  I’ve seen yellows given for less, but surely if the home side do it again there will be at least a warning?  Eventually we do secure our ball on the lineout yet can’t get our mauling ducks in a row, and another chance is gone.

Then soon afterwards, Zander Fagerson wins a turnover penalty in midfield even though he had his foot taken off the deck while he continued to jackle.  From the resulting lineout it is clear we haven’t learned too much from the first try as the ball yet again finds its way into the wide channels and once more it is Hogg coasting over the line, only this time he needed to do a lot of the work himself to throw off would be challengers around him.  14-0.

Again, we come straight back.  We clearly have good leaders out there to rally the troops behind the posts, it’s just a shame that we’re there in the first place.  After another good scrum and a break from Henshaw we find ourselves pounding through phases...18 in fact before Roman Poite sticks out his hand for yet another penalty close to the Scottish line.

In this sequence, we finally managed a try.  We had a bit of similar luck to that Russell had earlier when Zebo’s pass was almost picked off by Seymour, falling instead to Earls who brought it the rest of the way.  For me however, that penalty advantage should not have been forgotten despite the fact that we scored.  

Jackson’s conversion went wide, his first miss at this level in a while.  We definitely needed to build on the momentum from the try.  Unfortunately a mixup between Conor Murray and Rob Kearney handed Scotland the ball back way too easily and before we knew it, Russell had us pinned back deep in our own 22 as Zebo could only allow himself to be hauled into touch.

Ye gods, how frustrating is that third Scottish try to look at?  If anything demonstrates what I was describing earlier it was this.  Yes, we may have well-drilled systems in place.  And yes, we may have the full backing of the players who know them to a T.  But while they are performing their own set tasks, it wouldn’t hurt for someone to spot the number 12 on the back of a Scottish jersey in the lineout!!!!   I can’t write any more about that without getting upset.  21-5 to Scotland.

For a third time in a row, we regroup and put the home side under instant pressure.  And once more, they halt our progress by shipping a penalty, this time for offside. Jackson boots it over to make it 21-8 and soon after, the first half ends with a bit of excitement as we manage to thwart another Scottish attempt to go wide when Zebo intercepts but his kick forward doesn’t fall right for him to make the breakaway into a score.

At the interval the margin was about right for the way things had gone, but the penalty count was just 2 for Ireland and 7 for the home side; eight if you include the advantage before our try.  I harped on excuses earlier and “blaming the ref” is one used often in rugby.  Hopefully by pointing out our tactical failings I have earned enough credit to say I think the home side should have at the very least been on a yellow card warning at some stage for all of their infringements.

But even though we never had an extra man, we still found our way back from sixteen points down to get our noses in front, a point that shouldn’t be completely forgotten in all the disappointment.  Essentially from the time their second try was scored we shut down the leak (with Ringrose prominent among the strong tackling)...the third was the result of a different one.

Now our task was to crank things up offensively and we clawed our way back in this area as well.  Four minutes into the second half we roll for a whopping 18 phases in and around their 22, and yes, you guessed it, we won a penalty close to the Scottish line.  We opt for the scrum and in setting up Rory Best has a word with Poite.  Off the scrum it’s more pressure, 8 more phases, and finally Iain Henderson crashes over.  Now we’re only six behind.

Then Rob Kearney gets close to the line before offloading to Earls but the Louth man’s foot just grazed a white blade of touchline grass beforehand.  Scotland clear, but soon we’re right back on them.  Another 16 phases that required disciplined carrying and effective clearing & support followed, before Jackson spots that substitute Mark Bennett is all at sea; he sprints into the gap and plants it down at the second attempt.  Conversion over...we have the lead!

Sadly from here the errors start to creep back in at a time when flawless rugby was essential.  Yet another lineout goes astray.  Kearney misfires a pass to Zebo that could well have led to a score (Rob copped a lot of very unwarranted flak afterward I thought).  And on top of this, now we’re the ones getting hit with penalties.  

The first, for being off our feet, sees Russell plant a long booming kick right to our 22.  Moments later, it’s a very soft call against Paddy Jackson for not releasing after the tackle, and this one is right in front of goal - Laidlaw restores the lead.

Obviously we were still well in the contest but we just couldn’t stop the final quarter mistakes.  Stander uncharacteristically loses it in the tackle.  Toner sends a pass to nobody.  Finally a Tommy Bowe tackle is deemed too high and in my opinion should have been yellow under the new guidelines.  

The Scots could go for the three points but the much smarter option was the corner...not only does it pin us back even further but now there is a bonus point on offer for a fourth try.  They don’t quite make it to the line but a final breakdown penalty is enough for them to see out the time and stretch the final margin to five.

So a disappointing result, of that there is no doubt.  And there are no prizes for anyone working out the areas in which we lost.  Naturally all due credit must go to Vern Cotter, Greig Laidlaw and all involved with the home side, and they surely must be the most satisfied squad after the first weekend of this season’s championship.

But as I often say after defeats like this, the only people who can’t see the positives are those who don’t want to.  

A Six Nations Grand Slam is a bus that leaves bang on time and waits for noone.  If you miss it, you’ve only yourself to blame.  But there’s still a Championship express coming along behind it and if we play our cards right, that might be one we can catch and take all the way to the terminus.  There certainly aren’t any good excuses for giving up just yet.  JLP

PS. RIP Joost van der Westhuizen (1971-2017)

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