Monday, June 18, 2018

AUSTRALIA-21 IRELAND-26


SECOND BEST
"his call of 'penalty only' for the tip-tackle on Cian Healy was way, way wrong.  I was reminded of the phrase 'If you tilt your head and squint your eyes...'  because that must be what he did to determine that the prop wasn't beyond the horizontal, and the TMO's 'er.....well, OK' meant pretty much everyone else in the stadium agreed."
At first I regretted not doing the research before this match when the commentators pointed out that Paul Williams had been the referee when Ireland played Fiji back in November (quote above is from our writeup).  Yet when I thought about it some more, I gave myself a pass. 

For one thing, although the narrow victory over the Pacific Islanders was a disappointment even though we fielded far from our strongest team, the Grand Slam kind of put that on the backburner of my memory...but more importantly, we shouldn't really have go into rugby internationals featuring two of the world's top three worrying about how the ref is going to perform!!!  Yet Williams still ended up being the leading talking point after the match.

The Wallabies had gripes of their own, like whether or not Healy should have been sanctioned for his bump on Will Genia that led to the experienced scrum half being ruled out of next Saturday's deciding test.  To be honest, I don't know what to think about that one...it certainly wasn't a straight red card offence but had it been deemed yellow (not unreasonable as you can make a case for intent), it would have been his second and thus a red so should it have been cited?  That's giving me a headache so I'll leave it to other people to thrash out.

But if we're going to talk about whether or not yellows needed to be awarded, we cannot ignore the multitude of opportunities Williams had to sinbin Wallabies yet chose not to.  The official stats said they had 15 penalties on the night, though with both Irish tries being scored with advantage being played I'm calling that 17 so the final tally of 2 cards to 1 in our 'favour' makes absolutely no sense.

Ironically, the one card he did brandish was for the very thing he ignored against Fiji - back then it was on Healy but when Marika Koroibete upended Rob Kearney in virtually the same fashion, he rightly got a ten-minute break.

That's all well and good, but...and I HATE using the phrase 'What about' yet I must...what about when Temu takes out a player without the ball on 27m?  And what about when a surging move by Earls and Rob Kearney got us right to the Wallaby line only for the ball to be slowed down and a penalty awarded on 49m?  And what about the similar penalty called against Bernard Foley before the Earls try was ruled out by the TMO?  And what about Foley's deliberate knockon at 68m which led to the ridiculous message from Williams to Hooper...
"...you actually got a handle on a number of penalties before, now it's starting to roll again"
Is there a time limit on warnings that can elapse before you get to go back to a clean slate???

But what is most frustrating about that last infraction is that moments later, Jack McGrath gets (rightly) binned for more or less the same thing, which gave the home side the momentum to make the game a contest right up to the final play.  (Sidenote - anyone hear the TMO refer once more to the infamous 'camera seven' when he was checking this play?  I for one am dying to see what this angle looks like...)

This is my final referee complaint I promise, only because it also contributes to my overall point.  Right at the end of the first half, we win a scrum in the Australian 22.  As you can see from this screengrab, he has his arm out before the clock goes red, which means the scrum should be taken, and anyone who watched this year's Six Nations knows that Ireland are very good at milking an extra score before the break, yet this was denied by Williams who chose to call time.

I'm not only dwelling on the officiating for so long because we expect more at this extremely high level of the game, but also because you could make a very strong case for Ireland having been denied the opportunity to win this match by 15 points or more which would have led to even more ranking points, thus closing the gap on the All Blacks.  As I said in my first test writeup, these are the standards we should be setting right now if we're serious about things like reaching number one or winning the World Cup.

Basically the nicest thing I can say about Williams' performance is that he's the second best ref we've had so far in this series.  This brings me to my choice of title and also gives me an excuse to finally start harping on the actual rugby...

We were definitely second best in Brisbane, and from the opening minutes in Melbourne, it looked as though that would continue.  The Wallabies took the kickoff and immediately won the ball back, using it effeiciently to stretch our defence back and forth across the pitch, before Adam Coleman, arguably the luckiest to be retained in Michael Cheika's starting lineup, put the subtlest of blocks on CJ Stander opening a gap between himself and Dan Leavy for Kurtley Beale to exploit on a switch move giving the home side the perfect start.

But time and time and time again following both Leinster and Ireland I have seen us win matches having conceded the opening score, and I certainly wasn't going to be too worried on Saturday morning until I saw what we were going to do with a spot of possession ourselves.  And when Coleman knocked on shortly after the restart, Johnny Sexton was given the perfect opportunity to settle us into our rhythm.

While I still think we often took too many phases out many of our possessions given Hooper and Pocock were on the pitch, I was impressed with our overall use of the ball.  Last week it was Carbery and Murray firing long thread-needle passes and while those still featured in our attack patterns, we were also cranking up the physicality an extra notch or three.

More often than not we were really putting our back into it, often literally when the carrier reached the point of contact, turning away from the tackler at just the right moment to keep the ball protected though just to be sure, there was generally a team-mate in support to forcibly clear out unwanted Wallabies.

On that opening series we ground out 13 phases before Kearney, and in many ways the match, was turned on his head leading to Koroibete's yellow card and a massive attacking opportunity in the corner which we converted thanks to one of those Murray missiles to Conway before Sexton effortlessly stroked over the conversion from the touchline.

And we were far from satisfied with drawing level...on the exit series following the kickoff James Ryan, free from the 'perfect record' monkey on his back, rampaged into the opposition half before we eventually won a scrum on their 22...having chosen this particular front row based on scrummaging ability, Joe will have been more than happy with the resulting penalty which saw us go 7-10 ahead.

Shortly after that, although our passing sequence was snuffed out by a Folau interception, skipper Peter O'Mahony burrowed his way to a jackle turnover on a day when he was determined to be the most successful number 6 on the park no matter who his opposite number was.  Sexton kicks the penalty, 7-13.

That was all with the extra man, so would the home side claw their way back when the numbers were even?  Not right away...another Irish series of phases resulted in a deliberate knockon (the controversial call of choice for the occasion) which again Sexton dispatched over the bar so now it's 7-16.

Australia needed a way back, and two successive Irish penalties got them deep into our 22 where a well set maul trundled its way to the line before Williams pinged then yellowed Healy and the penalty try brought them back within two points.

So when they won another penalty a few minutes later at midfield, given what happened the last time, common sense dictated that they go for another lineout in our 22, especially since they now had an extra man, right?

Well, inexplicably Bernard Foley chose instead to tap, and only his skipper was really ready to go with him before he carried it into the grateful arms of several Irish tacklers, among whom was one Peter O'Mahony.  That, for me, was the moment Michael's Cheika's men were confirmed as the second best team on the park.

We then see out the sinbinning without any further damage on the scoreboard, though given we were denied our scrum before the break, a lot rested on how we came out for the second half.  During the interval my only concern was that we'd continue to take too much out of our possessions and sure enough on our next spell of phases we churned out 12 before Pocock got himself latched on near his own line.

But while that failure would have rattled most teams, not so for this one.  We just kept knuckling down and pushing our hosts back again and again and again, and to be fair, even the ref's missing cards weren't getting us down.

After that line break by Earls so ably supported by Kearney got us close to their line, we simply were not leaving without seven points, and in the end it was man of the match Tadhg Furlong stretching out for the decisive score.

The tight head was definitely deserving of the award, for the try, for the early scrum success, for a monster clearout on Pocock, and even for having the stones to try a long pass after a break deep into the 22 when most props would have kept their head down and recycled.  He is definitely raising the standards and expectations associated with his position to previously unheard of levels.

Now I know the match went right down to the final play when the Wallabies could have pinched it, but after watching a second time, I really do think the match was over at this stage, even before Sexton added an extra three points stretching the lead to 12.

We were in one of those zones where you just know you can pull out the play you need at any given moment.  Even the try from 'Tongan Thor' getting them within 5 didn't seem to really rattle us.  The Wallabies were making a lot of mistakes it's true and they certainly regressed from the previous week, but in many ways we were imposing the ineptitude on them.

I have two more uses for my 'Second Best' title.  The first is a nod to Father's Day weekend and all the corny 'dad jokes' that we're given 'credit' for...Sean Cronin's omission from the 23 raised a lot of questions over who Joe Schmidt currently has in mind for his second (Rory) Best should the skipper continue to be unavailable.  So how did Messrs Scannell and Herring do in his stead?

Well I thought both did extremely well as it happens.  Scannell was of course also involved in that early scrum plus he had several strong carries and fit in to our overall structure.  Herring's first action was an attacking lineout that was snaffled by Coleman but from then he did ok too.

Overall, I wouldn't stray from my hooking order of Best > Cronin > Scannell > Herring but this series has shown that slots 2 through 4 are a lot closer than before.  I really do think Nugget should get a start in Sydney though.

Finally, the most important use for 'Second Best' of the lot.  Although we could have earned more ranking points as I mentioned earlier, this away win consolidates our number two ranking.  And what's more, I'm not really that bothered about the fact that this was our first win in Oz since 1979.  The way we're set up these days, that only makes me more disappointed that we didn't put that drought to rest a week earlier.

Joe said at the end of the game that he had a lot of bumps and scrapes in his squad to sort out before they head to Sydney for the decider...he might have to 'put them together with glue'.  It's true that Carbery for Toner and Cooney for Sexton are two of the more unusual subsitiutions ever to be made by the boys in green.

Yet regardless of the matchday 23 available, we have shown over the two weeks that we are capable to playing our way to a certain standard, and whether or not the bookies see us as favourites to take the series, it's imperative that we play like it.

If we can go out with the same sense of belief we have shown, then we've every chance of the perfect end to what has already been a perfect season, and the world will see that not only are we the second best side on the planet, the only way we intend to go is up.  JLP

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