Monday, February 26, 2018

IRELAND-37 WALES-27

Best wishes for the future to 
Leinster, Ireland and Lions legend
Jamie Heaslip


WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH...

"Our defence was too narrow."

Whatever about the merits of that statement, my question is...how can that be the very first thing someone says about this match??? 

Alright, hang on...I know it's the first thing I'M saying about this match, but I'm merely quoting a straw keyboard warrior.  You know what I mean 😉.

Since I'm leading with this subject I may as well deal with it now.  It's not like we play with this style of defence for the sake of it.  Of course bunching numbers closer to the breakdown represents a risk, but if we're going to give out when it doesn't work we also need to factor in the times when it does.

Plus there's the fact that the pressure our organisation is able to exert on the opposition puts them in a position where they know their passes have to be absolutely spot on to have a hope of exploiting the outside space, and maybe instead of pointing fingers at our D, we can throw a bit of praise at the Welsh for being able to do so  - I thought their tries were exceptional.

But let's go back to the times they weren't able to get it wide, or more to the point, when they weren't allowed to.  And you won't get a better example of that than the closing minutes when the visitors had gotten to within a tantalising three points and needed a drive on a par to ours in Paris to pull a result out of the bag.

Having sensibly put the restart deep into their 22, we gave away a sloppy enough penalty as they tried to exit, though to be fair it was only our fourth of the afternoon.  FOURTH!  Yet another impressively low total after 6 v France and 3 v Italy and even more of a reason to see our D's glass as at least half full.

Even with this advantage, which Wales used well off the resulting lineout as George North crashed his way into our half, thanks to lightning quick line speed [Devin Toner put in a great 80 minutes in this area especially] we were able to squeeze the Welsh attackers back into their own territory and eventually it got to a stage where they felt their only option was for Gareth Anscombe to force a long high pass into the wide channel...we all know what happened next but I'll say it anyway - Jacob Stockdale plucked it out of the air to continue his amazing sequence of multiple-try outings for Ireland.

That match-clinching score wasn't luck.  And it wasn't the Welsh handing it to us out of nowhere either.  It was the result of a well-drilled defence reaping a reward which more than justified any risks involved.  Of course Joe himself wasn't happy with the manner in which the tries were conceded, but that's because his job is to strive for perfection - IMO being a fan should give you more latitude for finding the silver linings.

And that wasn't even the most significant 'buzzer-beating' score of the match as far as I'm concerned...look where we were at the end of the first half.

That time it was the Welsh who gave us an opportunity...perhaps the offside call on Shingler was a tad harsh but then again he was warned by the ref.  This set up a situation where we simply had to get something, and it's not as though we were piling on the scores up to that point despite owning both possession and territory stats.

For me, the sequence that led up to Bundee Aki's try shows what this 2018 vintage of Joe Schmidt's Ireland has that we seriously lacked before.  It is well documented that we've needed a bigger squad but our problems ran deeper, because previously if we didn't build a decent lead after the first half hour of play we'd find it very difficult to win.

It may not be the way we'd ideally like these matches to go [it certainly wasn't ideal for my nerves], but both the France and Wales matches showed that even with second string players at key positions, this team is able to knuckle down and find what it takes to get the job done and if we can somehow bottle that and bring it forward then there's no end to where we can go IMO.

Aki's sheer determination in planting the ball down was matched by every carry and clear-out that preceded it, not least of which came from Johnny Sexton who, while having a day to forget from the kicking tee, showed in the rest of his game that having him on the pitch while below par is infinitely better than not having him at all.

He also contributed greatly to the first try by Stockdale, threading the needle with a missile that made for a ludicrously easy finish in that situation.  Though a different kind of pass than BOD's to Zebo in Cardiff some years ago, the circumstances were still familiar.

Then there was yet another strong carry from our Lions outhalf ahead of the bonus point try from Cian Healy.  He certainly did everything he could to make up for the earlier misses, though that's still an elephant in the room which needs addressing.

Although all the wayward place kicks went right and he never seemed to compensate, I wouldn't hold them against him too much - I would however have concerns over where his thinking was when he took that quick tap for a penalty in front of the posts as our lead was seven with just 13 minutes left. 

I know world-class players earn that status by doing things nobody would expect, but you won't shake me from the opinion that going for the posts was the only option at that point, and if he wasn't up to the kicking then we had Murray, Kearney and McFadden available as alternatives.  That this was the one time in the match our forwards weren't able to rumble through red zone phases speaks more to their thinking 'WTF is he doing?' than anything else.

My apologies for leaving it this long to praise man of the match Chris Farrell but as you can see I had a bit of a laundry list to get off my chest first; in my defence I did tweet my appreciation of his performance before he was awarded the gong and I'm quite happy to eat humble pie after suggesting earlier that nEarls should get the 13 jumper.  In my preview this is what I said about Farrell...
...he has played with Aki before and has spent plenty of time at Carton House to get to know the Schmidt way.  For me, I'm happy once they stay on top of defence and keep our power plays on the front foot. 
And not only did they do that but more often than not the hits and carries came with that little bit of extra zing which is exactly what we needed.  What this award for Farrell shows most of all (though Joe certainly won't thank me for pointing this out) is that going abroad for a few years doesn't necessarily kill your test chances.  While Ringrose is back available for selection, I reckon he may only make the bench against Scotland as it would be tough to drop the Munster centre.

Let's not forget both Andrew Porter AND John Ryan.  Remember when Mike Ross was our first, second AND third choice tight head?  Well in case anyone thinks we're in a similar boat regarding Tadhg Furlong, this display suggests otherwise. 

You can bet the Welsh saw this as a possible weakness yet we went five for five on our put ins, made some hay on theirs, and finally our bench front row won us the penalty which Murray was able to kiss off the upright and over the bar for what [eventually!] proved to be the winning margin.

My tries are all over the place in this writeup so I might as well bring up Leavy's [our third] here - a great return for the lad and he was devilish at the breakdown...the Welsh were thwarting us quite a bit in those early stages but he definitely showed he belonged in this kind of company with some key jackling as well as the try...it was crucial at a time where we badly needed to pick up where we left off at the end of the first half.

Keith Earls was rubbish, by the way. Five Irish tries and he didn't get any???  Appalling.  I hope you know I'm joking...he still managed to show his class at other times and was actually only denied a five pointer by the bounce of the ball.

A final word on the Welsh...they definitely did some good things in patches, like the tries and Biggar besting Rob Kearney to a couple of high balls, but overall it has to be said that Schmidtball outplayed Warrenball.  Having seen their early success stripping the ball off us evaporate I thought he missed a trick not bringing on Tipuric sooner, and I also felt they gave away enough red zone penalties to at least get a warning from ref Glen Jackson.

One of the best things about our opening two wins being against France and Italy is that we don't need to worry about the Triple Crown.  Now when I say 'worry' - I haven't done so myself for many, many years but the media still make a thing of it and the way this year's Six Nations stacks up now, only we can win it - but if we do, it will also mean we have won that other two-word phrase which I refuse to mention between now and when the fat lady sings [hint - it kind of rhymes with 'Van Damme'].

As for the actual championship itself, well the maths are so much in our favour it's actually scary and again I'm too superstitious to harp on it here - maybe another day.

For now, we have two weeks to slowly wind down from this great victory [it really was, you know, despite the negativity] and prepare for the visit of a Scottish outfit that will be well up for repeating last year's win on opening day

Meanwhile, I'm imagining Joe's Monday DVD session to be all about the fact that we won 138 rucks out of 139, with all the attention being given, of course, to the one we lost.  Hey, whatever way they want to roll works for me if they keep on posting wins like this one.  JLP

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