Monday, November 27, 2017


So another November series comes to an end for Joe Schmidt's Ireland; and with three wins and plenty of new names given decent game time, the month can only be labelled as an overall success.

It's important to understand what exactly is meant by 'giving game time'.  It's not as though we're doling out caps just for the sake of it.  The goal is to ensure that should we be forced to play a big World Cup knockout game without a significant number of 'recognised starters', there are enough replacements who can not only fill the shirts but also get the job done.

And I think over the past three weeks we have done that.  Andrew Conway, Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell, Adam Byrne, James Ryan, Kieran Treadwell [I've included each province there, right?] are among those who got their chance to varying degrees and all have done well in varying degrees but there is no doubt about who has stood out the most.

For while most of the 'newbies' have more established players to stand ahead of them in the pecking order, in the case of young Jacob Stockdale I reckon we might just have someone who is ready to play an even bigger role for Ireland.

Often in sport at senior level when a youngster is given his debut, the gameplan is adjusted in such a way that he can be allowed to 'bed in' as it were.  Not so many play calls will have him in a starring role, and in rugby that works even more so for a winger.  But that's not the case at the elite test level, and it is especially not the case when Joe Schmidt is calling the shots.

He wants his wingers to be able to deal with restarts.  He wants them to chase kicks and if a catch can't be made, the opponent must be tackled and driven back.  He wants them available for crash ball plays to get his team on the front foot after set pieces.  Oh, and if you could finish the odd try here and there as well, that'd be great, cheers.

There were no kid gloves for young Jacob on Saturday, and he certainly didn't need them as he ticked all of the above boxes to make the decision for man of the match extremely easy.  On domestic weekends our focus is more on Leinster in these parts so we don't always see him week in, week out, but having impressed with the 'Wolfpuppies' he has made his mark on the highest stage over the past few weeks.

In some ways he was given the opportunity to shine on Saturday by his opposition.  You'd think they'd be keen to test out the Leinster debutante Adam Byrne over on the other wing with their restarts, yet all of them in the first half went to Stockdale, and all of them were well handled.

But as often is the case with this contemporary Irish setup, it wasn't just the actions of one player which grabbed your attention - practically from the opening kickoff the fifteen men in green put on a near-perfect display of 'Schmidtball'.  We worked through the phases out of our own 22, we got strong runs gaining ground from Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney and Tadhg Furlong when there was space, and there was only 3 minutes on the clock when Johnny Sexton was putting us on the scoreboard with a penalty. 

From there we continued to stamp our authority on the match.  Having the measure of their scrum certainly helped, also to the tune of three points to double our lead after thirteen minutes.  But what we needed to make full use of our advantage was a breakthrough over the try line, and that came at the end of the first quarter.

Judging by Sexton's demeanour when he took a catch he knew full well his side would have the advantage as Argentinian forwards swarmed around him - from a kick it doesn't count as a 'choke tackle'.  That's a quirky technicality in the Laws it's true, but one all should know at this level and it must have forwards coaches pulling their hair out in cases like this.

Off the scrum the ball arrived to Chris Farrell and he really had no time at all to fashion a pass to keep the play going. But somehow, he found a way and his 'quick-handery' took two Pumas out of the equation while putting two of our boys, namely Sexton and Stockdale, through to get us over the line. 

It was complete domination in those opening stages for Ireland, and what's more we were also comfortable when our opposition had the ball.  In my match notes [yes, I have match notes and yes, I hear the cries of 'nerd alert' and no, I don't care 😜] I have several entries which refer to multiple-phase series [as high as 17 and 19 at times] by our visitors which more often than not ended in either a knockon or a turnover.  At halftime, I was more impressed by the '0' on their side of the scoreboard than I was the '13' on ours.

Then the second half kicked off and it's like we never left the pitch...the well-oiled machine was still ticking over nicely as Rob Kearney made one of several hater-defying contributions to run back a poor clearance from Sanchez putting on that all-important 'front foot'.  A few phases later, another deft pass this time from Sexton put Stockdale into a gap and he had loads to do yet he not only backed himself but also knew exactly what meandering line to run along the way.   Twenty for us, nothing for them, looking to all intents and purposes like it was to be a second rout of a SANZAAR nation in three weeks.

But surely by now we as Irish rugby fans know about the dangers of underestimating the Argentinians?  Have we not been burned enough by them over the years?  

I mean - on top of the fact that we had dominated up to that second try from Stockdale, there were other factors at play to suggest we'd romp home.  First, there's the mysterious mathematical marvel called the World Rugby rankings which has Argentina down around the 9/10 mark.  I haven't crunched the numbers but I reckon playing 6 matches in the Rugby Championship each year unlike those around them can't help them get much higher.

Then there was the narrative which suggested that the more this match wore on, the more the Argentinian players were 'dreaming of lying on a beach' as it was the end of their season.  Well, that could not be further from what actually happened for the remainder of that second half, as they pretty much threw the kitchen sink at us in that time; at one stage RTÉ reported they had 80% possession.

It's not as though we were 'letting' them have so much ball, rather the way we had defended up to that point meant they had two choices...give up or get in our faces to try and make something happen; thankfully for those of us wanting to see a good game of rugby, they went for the latter.

Of course having kept your opposition scoreless for so long, it leaves you with a measure of disappointment to see them run in three tries before the match is over.  In an ideal world you want all your players to play to the fullest of their potential for 80 minutes.  But is that always possible in sport at the highest level?

Full credit to the Pumas for coming back at us, and when you watch that second half you can see just how much work they had to do to break us down.  The first try was a bit suspect as Tuculet was barely level with Sanchez as the outhalf kicked through, the second was right in the furthest corner and as for the third, well, that wasn't a try.

I mean, it really wasn't.  We shouldn't be counting it really.  Sure, you could fashion an impressive YouTube clip to show the Pumas getting from their own try line to ours with Moyano eventually getting a deserved try after a great overall display.  But you'd have to leave out the clearly illegal actions of sub prop Lucas Noguera Paz who, after being hammered by Rory Best on his own try line, placed the ball while on the ground, then picked it up again to carry on.

Now to be fair to referee Mathieu Reynal, I thought he had a good game overall, dealing well with early attempts by the visitors to target Sexton and generally accepting no nonsense.  But he and his team definitely missed that no-no and given we were well up for finishing the series with a try, the error could easily have meant a fourteen-point swing in the final margin.

But that's enough on the 'what might have beens'.  I still have a third Irish try on which to harp, and it was an impressive one as our time in opposition territory was very limited in the second half so we did extremely well to somehow put another fifteen points on the board.  

The try was finished by CJ Stander after a textbook Irish maul but it was the result of a march up the field that began with Sexton running towards his own line before launching an excellent touchfinder which had him grumbling to the assistant ref for even more yards.  A couple of Argentinian penalties followed which had us in their 22 and it was vital that we made it into a score, and we managed it.

All in all it was a satisfying team performance.  Top tacklers for us were our entire back row along with Bundee Aki.  Like I said earlier, Rob Kearney showed exactly why Joe continues to have faith in him.  Chris Farrell definitely made the most of the late withdrawal of Robbie Henshaw to show he can do a job in the centre.  Adam Byrne didn't get too many opportunities on the wing and when Farrell went off he moved into the centre but it wss a great experience for him overall.

If I had any reservations coming out of this November, it would be over our 9 and 10 jerseys.  Few in world rugby doubt how good a pairing Murray and Sexton are - they could arguably be the best combo on the planet right now.  But while we have done really well to promote depth in all other positions on the park, have we done the same with our halfbacks?  I know Carbery's injury can't be helped with regard to him getting pitch time, but Luke McGrath's second late introduction in as many weeks raised an eyebrow or two and I'm not sure Kieran Marmion has fully established himself as our top Murray replacement.

Look...that's a debate for another day.  We've won three out of three this month, and seven test wins in a row is not to be sneezed at whatever the opposition.  There's loads for us to build on, and with players like young Jacob breaking into the senior team, who knows how much further up the ladder we can go?  JLP


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