Monday, March 12, 2018

IRELAND-28 SCOTLAND-8



IRELAND ARE THE 2018 SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONS!!! *

Let the players look that how they play, let the coaches look at how they coach, let the pundits look at how they...pun?  What say we Irish fans be fans and give a mahoosive WOO HOO!!!

Following team sports really means nothing unless you follow a particular team, so when they win a major championship, that means a fan should look at how fanatical they're going to get, and nothing else.

So for now, I'm going to take all the negativity from the four matches to date - ['what about the Thomas try???' 'what about Italy's three tries?' 'what about the Welsh getting so close?' 'what about Scotland, er, scoring first?'], and stick them in a box.  Don't worry, it won't be far away, just on that shelf over there, and we can get back to it later.

This has been a tournament where the Irish squad under Joe Schmidt  has continued to evolve even further, something even I didn't think was possible after how far they had gone already.  We're like a snake that keeps shedding its skin only to get stronger, an analogy I actually chose before remembering the boys in green will be leaving the country for a very important event on St Patrick's Day.

On past occasions, when we dominated possession and territory for the first twenty minutes only to find ourselves down on the scoreboard, we struggled to find our way into match, in turn allowing our opponents to grow in confidence.  

Now we seem to be able to switch from the areas where things aren't working to ones that are and it's that relentless adherence to the standards forged on the training ground that have been serving us well throughout the 23-man squad and all the way to each final whistle.

Take our first try on Saturday.  Little niggly things had been halting our attacks in the opening stages...an overthrown lineout dart here, a pass gone to ground there, some strong Scottish jackling elsewhere.  In the meantime, the visitors barely dipped their toes into our half before Laidlaw was kicking them into the lead.

I may be on my own in this, but I think our 'narrow defence' is what actually caused Jacob Stockdale's second interception try in as many matches.  Yes, it was a poor pass from Peter Horne but that's exactly my point...opponents make those mistakes because they know they have to hurry to find that supposed promised land in the wide channel, and IMO we have helped ourselves to at least 14 points on the strength of it.

That didn't deflate Gregor Townsend's men, but it did seem to make them want to alter their approach.  For the next while they upped the tempo and challenged us to bouts of kick tennis which saw them eventually earn some possession in our 22, but once again we found another source of strength as CJ Stander and James Ryan were able to turn it over.

When their next assault on our 22 ended with a forward pass, we had a scrum deep inside our own half with just a few minutes left before the break.  I'll go out on a limb and say every Irish fan would have taken a 7-3 lead at halftime the way things had gone, and when Sexton found touch at midfield from the scrum, it looked like it would end that way.  But now it was Scotland's turn to overthrow a lineout and it fell into the grateful arms of Ryan.

Even in this situation, many teams would be of a mindset to see out the half to ensure the lead is brought into the dressing room.  But none of those teams would be ones coached by Joe Schmidt.  

Front foot transition ball inside the opposition half?  Getting into the 22 is Joe's minimum requirement from there and with big carries and runs from man-of-the-match Rob Kearney and extremely-honourable-mention Garry Ringrose, all of a sudden Bundee Aki was getting it over the line, where it was called held up by referee Wayne Barnes so we still had a 5m scrum.

Now Joe's minimum requirement will have shifted to 'three points on the scoreboard', yet the move we executed here ended up earning us the full seven and was an thing of absolute beauty.

When I watched it first I was sure it was Sexton doing the 'wraparound' move putting Stockdale over for his second.  And they made it look so easy that I was seriously questioning the defensive cover...surely they had some kind of preparation for our outhalf's trademark manoeuvre?  Then I saw the replay.

Sexton was to all intents and purposes used as a decoy...it was actually Ringrose this time who was not only running the loop, but also throwing the Scots for one.  A classic training ground move, brilliantly planned, brilliantly executed and most importantly, brilliantly called for in that situation.  And let's not forget it was the third 40-minute period in a row that we ended with a try - tack on Johnny's wonder drop goal after 'that drive' in Paris and I'm really not so sure it's coincidence.

That score had to settle the nerves quite considerably in the Irish dressing room - they certainly came out determined to keep the momentum going.  And again when things went a little askew like a Johnny Sexton high kick that strayed too far into the Scottish 22, there was Rob Kearney on hand to get in on the catch and turn what should have been a free kick to the visitors into an attacking scrum for us.

From there we got it into the 22 before forcing another penalty and despite failing to score from 'going for the corner' earlier, we weren't afraid to go again and this time it worked perfectly as Conor Murray continued his own try-scoring run from an unstoppable maul.

Now we're much more comfortable, but the fourth try couldn't be taken for granted, and as if to prove this the Scots had a purple patch of their own which meant we were to go another twenty minutes without scoring. 

For their try, they were the ones executing a training ground move, lining up three backs behind a central scrum under the posts.  That left us guessing as to which way they'd go and the passes went well out to Blair Kinghorn who got it down in the furthest corner.  Can we fault the defence?  Perhaps, but that kind of talk is still in the box, don't forget and besides, it was much more a case of the Scots doing something well.

They continued to probe us out in the wide channels for the next while but again I think the knowledge that their distribution had to be perfect was responsible for multiple passes finding touch.

What Ireland needed to get the fourth try was a few reinforcements to freshen things up, and in the likes of Jordi Murphy with his strong carries and Sean Cronin with his determined finish after clinging to the maul until the last possible second, we got the bonus point wrapped up with 12 minutes left.

Other individual performances of note came from Bundee Aki, who might not have had any 'highlight reel' moments yet was still often the glue that held our long spells of possession together.  Dan Leavy scored some key turnovers though the entire back row did well.  James Ryan looked like he's been playing alongside Devin Toner for years.

The main point of the above paragraph is that throughout this tournament we're continuously getting stand out performances from players few would have had in their Six Nations fantasy teams, which can only be good 'going forward'.

And the most ironic thing of all for Joe Schmidt to be happy about selection-wise is that after having the replacement of BOD as his first big challenge when he took this job in 2013, he has managed to win his third championship in five years with a host of different names excelling in the role - Payne, Henshaw, Farrell and now Ringrose.  Here's hoping Garry's limping at the end wasn't anything too serious.

On Wayne Barnes...I agree with all the plaudits he has been getting for his, shall we say, 'chatty' performance?  Maybe calling players by name and saying things like 'good job' could be seen as a tad patronising, but then again all I ever ask for in a ref is to be both consistent and communicative, and he definitely ticked both boxes well.

Speaking of boxes, it's time to take the one with the negativity down from the shelf.  These four displays have all been enjoyable in their own different ways, and we have deservedly clinched top spot on the points table because of them.  But there's still one challenge left to achieve the highest honour rugby's greatest championship has to offer.

You don't need me to spell out what we're up against going to Twickenham, but I'll do it anyway.  Whatever about England's shortcomings in this campaign, we all know how motivated they'll be to get us back for stopping their slam last year.  All those things in the box will need to be dealt with in preparation for what to all intents and purposes will be a cup final - for this match, nobody will care a jot about bonus points I can guarantee you that.

But as the week wears on and the championship celebrations die down, we as Irish fans need to ask ourselves but one question...

Forget the perils of narrow defences.  Forget who the opposition is or where the match is being played.  Forget what happened in years gone by.  Forget about the players who won't be available.  Focus on the fact that twenty-three green jerseys will be pulled on next Saturday and ask yourself - do you believe Joe, Rory, Johnny and the boys can do it?   Yes or no?

All I know is that I refuse to utter the two words that describe what's at stake at Twickenham [don't you dare try to suggest I mean 'Triple' and 'Crown'] between now and Saturday.  Rhyming slang is ok - I tend to call it a Van Damme but perhaps you have something better.  It's going to be one hell of an exciting Paddy's Day weekend, and just in case you've any doubt about what my answer to the above question was, it's a resounding yes.  JLP

* = UPDATE - I should add that we have also risen to second in the World Rugby rankings, although something in my sporting DNA prevents me from getting too excited about being second in anything no matter how good the guys in first may be.  Still, everyone in the ruggersphere knows that it's a good thing so it's worth adding to the writeup, if a bit late.

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