Monday, March 20, 2017

IRELAND-13 ENGLAND-9 be honest I think the clock only stopped at 99:55 because it wasn’t physically able to count over 100, and the whole farce at the end made it look like match had been hit by the Y2K bug 17 years late.

The Welsh no doubt will whine about the alleged bite and/or HIA shenanigans, while the French will no doubt whine about Wayne Barnes and his reluctance to award further yellow cards and/or a penalty try.  Thankfully the right result was reached in the end, at least in the eyes of this, er, “neutral” blogger!

Now I must apologize for my France/Wales writeup spilling over into my Ireland/England one; without any further adieu, let’s go from Paris to Dublin…

“Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after. The end.”

Years ago as a joke I used to try to get away with telling my eldest daughter the above as a bedtime story but she was never having any of it.  “Tell me a real one!!!” she’d say.  I guess the moral of the story is that even if both your opening and finale are classics, you can’t judge a narrative without knowing what happened in between.

Ireland’s 2016/17 test campaign began with an amazing win over a team that was going for a (Tier 1) world record 19 wins in a row.  It concluded in exactly the same fashion.   Yet despite the excellent performances by the boys in green over those 160 minutes, we had a lot of disappointment in other displays that cannot be ignored.

But while I know life would be boring if everyone held exactly the same opinion, it never ceases to amaze me how many Irish fans, be they professional commentators or “mere mortals”, consistently allow personal agendas to hold them back from enjoying a win for their team, even in its immediate aftermath.

It could be a preference for their own province, or a dislike of another.  It could be an aversion to particular personality in the setup - Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and even CJ Stander are frequent targets but Joe Schmidt seems to be at the epicenter of the current batch of “hating” for some reason.

Obviously I can’t tell people what to think, but would it be too much for some to at least lead off their criticism with something like “Congrats lads, you were awesome today, all of us are celebrating with you”?  Anyway, mini-rant over - time to harp on the match itself. minimum expectation for our performance will be that we do everything we can to knock our visitors off their stride in the opening half hour...and from then, we need all 23 players focused and on top of their game for the 80 minutes - if any starters don’t comply, they need to be replaced.

In my preview I said it wasn’t about which individuals were in the particular jerseys - what we needed was a focused performance that was as much about preventing points as it was scoring them.  By the time the clock ticked past the 30 minute mark, we led by 10 to 3 and already our guests were clearly rattled.

What were England doing in that time?  Pretty much what we expected - staying strong on defence while adding a bit of extra “mustard” to their tackles on our out half, all the time staying patiently confident that chances to strike will come.

But what were we doing in that time?  There’s the key.  We certainly weren’t playing with our heads down trying to impose our particular style of game, that’s for sure.

We were also strong on defence.  We were also being strategic with our “dark arts”...tug of a jersey here, holding a player down there, a bit of extra force in clearing out, etc, etc.  And they didn’t like it.  When you have Dylan Hartley whinging to the ref in detail about particular things his opponents are up to, you know you’re getting to them.

And it’s not as though we completely abandoned “Schmidtball” altogether.  The power plays were there, and they were finding gains each time.  The wraparound moves were there, and they were creating space plus now and again we were wisely using them as decoys.  But most of all, the lineout success which had deserted us in Cardiff was there - and this led directly to our only try from Iain Henderson.

That seven point margin we created was well deserved, though when the halftime whistle blew I was convinced that we would regret not extending it further.  England were as “there for the taking” at that point as I have ever seen them under Eddie Jones, with George Ford often the centre of their weakness in that time.

My pessimism during the break was based on an assumption that the visitors would be able to raise their game, but when Anthony Watson proceeded to drop his first real chance in some space, this indicated that our constant pressure had followed them into the dressing room.

Now don’t get me wrong...we weren’t short of mistakes ourselves.  Jared Payne put a couple of catches down that should be easy for him.  Kieran Marmion, who overall had a fine game in Conor Murray’s absence, tried to execute a play that was far too complicated for what was needed.  And Jack McGrath shipped an extremely senseless penalty to give England what was thought to be the crucial first score of the second half.

But the point is that we were never phased by those errors; each culprit came back even more determined to make up for it on the next possession.  And on top of that, the English seemed to be matching us in the mistakes department.  As the clock ticked into final quarter with the margin firmly in “squeaky bum” territory, the pressure was on us to maintain our advantage right up to the final whistle.

It was at this time we saw the culmination of our best individual displays on the day.  First, Jonathan Sexton.  Already he had been the architect of several attacking chances as well as being part of a trio of choke tacklers along with Henshaw and O'Brien which was succesful twice.

While all this was happening he was getting clatter after clatter by Haskell, Itoje, Farrell, and finally Tom Wood.   To be fair, he gave some back (though it's interesting to see some only mentioning the retaliation - they are clearly choosing to ignore the context).

Rory Best felt compelled to plead his case for a yellow card, and despite allowing Hartley to come just short of drawing diagrams earlier, Garces gave the Irish captain short shrift with his reply “We are in charge”.

“But I have a responsibility to my team!” came the absolutely justified reply, yet still no further action was taken.  So with all that frustration, will all that controversy, and most of all with the latest bang itself still hanging over him, Sexton somehow had to compose himself and propel the ball between the uprights.  And that he did.

At this stage both teams were well into their benches, and though he did well overall on his test debut, it was Andrew Conway’s over-exuberance that shipped a penalty which  Farrell was able to knock over to bring the margin back to four.  On the 73 minute mark we were pinged for not rolling away after yet another series of England phases was repelled by our excellent line speed.  This gave them a chance to go both for our 22 and our jugular.

I want Peter O’Mahony in the Irish team always.  That said, I want CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip there too.  I also think Dan Leavy is well able to start now and could even be captain one day.  All are capable of man of the match displays, no matter what happened even a week before.  

The problem is, you can only have three back rowers on the pitch at one time and it’s a predicament we should be delighted with, not squabbling over.  Jamie was unlucky to be ruled out in the warmup and as it turned out, this day belonged very much to O’Mahony.

He was our leader at the breakdown, and he was a key addition to our lineout on our own throw.  But on that 73rd minute, he literally rose head and shoulders above the rest of the players on the pitch, pinching the English dart and securing the win for Ireland.  Sure, having Devin Toner as a lifter didn’t exactly hurt, but Peter’s the kind of guy who could probably find that extra height when he needs it on pure adrenaline alone.  Man of the match and very much in Lions contention.

If I had to single out a player on the day who was disappointing it would be Jack McGrath, but everyone has off days and what was crucial for us was that we had someone to step up and Cian Healy definitely did well in his cameo, bringing it himself off a maul and crashing towards the English 22 as the clock wound down.

We then ran through some further phases killing even more time before another Leinster substitute, Luke McGrath shaped to box kick.  Wait...what?
When that ball rolled over the touchline deep in the English 22, I felt the same way I had when Robbie Henshaw scored against the All Blacks...this contest is over. Yes, I know it wasn’t a try but it wasn’t that kind of game….points were at a premium and especially in those closing stages, territory was everything.

The clock eventually ran out and the celebrations could begin, for both sides as the visitors were awarded the Six Nations trophy and Ireland were able feel satisfied about an evening’s work well done - the “what might have been” discussions could wait until during the week.

Looking back over the contest a second time you really got a sense that England were never going to cross our fact, the last time they did on our patch in the Six Nations was courtesy of a Steve Thompson interception back in 2011 - a day we also denied them a Grand Slam.

Some very honourable mentions from the day...Garry Ringrose has clearly grown into that 13 jumper enough to make it his own.  Multiple gainline busts, multiple key tackles...the only thing he’s missing is to have an entire attack strategy built around him and when that happens his career could hit the stratosphere.

Then there’s Andy Farrell.  Many question marks were surrounding his tenure before this one, and rightly so, but on this occasion, his coaching came good.   He’s responsible for our defence, and it all but won us this match. Maybe his “inside knowledge” helped us, but credit where it’s due.

Next for Ireland?  As the cream of the crop heads to New Zealand with the Lions, the rest will go to Japan.  Hopefully Joe will learn even more about the depth of talent in our squad, but when it comes to our chances when we return to that destination in 2019, we won’t know much more until November.

One thing we will know by then is our pool opponents (thanks to the weekend's results we find ourselves in the top pot), and we’ll also find out whether or not we’re hosting in 2023, so there much to look forward to for Irish rugby.

We started this tournament in disappointing fashion and I said so at the time.  We were also disappointing on that Friday night in Cardiff, and I also made that clear.  But a second place finish and a Slam/World Record-denying performance like this might point to a need for consistency, but it should also be appreciated.

Here’s hoping that when asked about this November to March series of test matches in years to come, even the most curmudgeonly fans will answer like this…

“That was the season we started by beating the All Blacks for the first time and ended by stopping another English slam.”  Says it all for me.  JLP

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019