Monday, July 02, 2018

10 out of 11 : The tale of Ireland's 2017/18 campaign told in Harpin writeups


A few weeks ago we posted a timeline of our Leinster writeups from the season just gone, so seeing how the Irish test squad was every bit as successful, it makes sense to give our Grand Slam heroes the same treatment.

For us here at Harpin Manor, the season both began and ended for Ireland against Australia.  That's because the Women's World Cup being not only here in Ireland, but also in the month August, meant we could give it the women's team kind of coverage we'd love to be able to offer throughout the season.  

So we'll start our timeline there, here we go...

August 9 : #WRWC2017 : IRELAND-19 AUSTRALIA-17

"One thing the Irish players both present and past have made clear is that they don’t want their performances treated with kid gloves.  If they play badly, then it needs to be pointed out, unlike your son’s under 10s match on a Sunday morning when everyone is a winner.

I am fully behind this approach and I am determined to hold the girls' feet to the fire whenever I deem it necessary - though I would add a note of caution that it is possible to go too far in this regard.  Still, this display from Tom Tierney’s side was nowhere near ideal."

writeup - 'UP FOR THE CUP'

August 13 : #WRWC2017 : IRELAND-24 JAPAN-14

"Of course in an ideal world we’d love for Ireland to have not only world class players at every position, but more to back them up.  But we’re not drawing on the same player pool nor are we professionals like England, and we don’t have teeny tiny rugby balls for blood cells like they do in New Zealand.  We have to do everything we can to make the most out of everything we can and the net results have been amazing for the Irish programme over the years.

 With just four days between matches in a pool that was never going to be easy even with home advantage, Tom Tierney & co have had to make some tough decisions.  Of course we’d love to see them play our best matchday 23 each time but that’s not doable.  Sacrifices have to be made.  Priorities need to be sorted out."

writeup - 'BENCH IMPRESS'

August 17 : #WRWC2017 : IRELAND-5 FRANCE-21

"In some ways it's ironic that our tournament ended against France because our Six Nations clash with them in 2012 is what highlighted the deficiencies of the support the women's outfit were getting from the IRFU at the time.  They probably would have been better off hitchhiking to Pau as I recall.


Since then, however, the support has improved drastically, and the results on the pitch have been amazing.  Grand Slam 2013, World Cup semifinal 2014, Six Nations champions 2015.  That is most certainly "not nothing".  So why now do we see this gulf in class?"

writeup - 'WHERE WE ARE'

[note - we did 80-word reviews for Ireland's matches in the minor playoffs, the links are below as well as the one for the 7th/8th place decider against Wales]

August 22 : #WRWC2017 : IRELAND-24 AUSTRALIA-36

August 26 : #WRWC2017 : IRELAND-17 WALES-27


"Yet more disappointment for the Irish in Belfast...much like recent defeats to France and Australia we did some good things with the ball yet when basic errors turned over possession we were unable to stop the opposition attacking even from their own half.  Irish women’s rugby has improved since 2014 but not as much as at least seven other nations and this needs addressing soon otherwise the gap will be much wider in 2021.  Perhaps a Genesis-type report is needed?"


And so we move on to November, and the start of the new campaign for the Irish men.   

Before we start with the season's writeups, I'd like to share a couple of articles we posted ahead of the Autumn Internationals to give a sense of where we were as a team before we played the Springboks.



"Whatever changes the governing body were to make (to the project player rules), those who had already committed to a three-year plan found themselves unaffected.  That really should go without saying.  So to lie in the long grass and wait until just before one such player's debut to bring it all up again is...well, what is it?

...if we claim to be a nation that offers a hundred thousand welcomes to people who come to see the Book of Kells and kiss the Blarney Stone, then surely we can muster at least one to a rugby player who agreed to the rules as they were at the time, moved half way round the world and had great success in over three years at Connacht?"



"As for Joe Schmidt, I reckon it's the 2019 edition of the (World Cup) that is most occupying his thoughts these days, and his preparation windows are running out.  Guinness Series 2017 and 2018, Six Nations 2018 and 2019, a 3-match series in Oz and I'm assuming a few warmup games.   That might seem like a lot, but that opening date with the Scots on 22/09/19 will be on us before you know it.

What seems to be the biggest focus [and rightly so] is increasing his pool of not only available players, but also reliable ones and this selection really looks like a mix between what we'd arguably call his 'untouchable XV' from 2015 and a host of worthy candidates given the chance to hold up their hands."


November 11 : IRELAND-38 SOUTH AFRICA-3

"Perhaps 'asphalt' isn't the most inspiring choice of name for a colour, though I actually don't think our latest alternate jersey looks too bad.  But before you start accusing me of shilling for a manufacturing company, I have one important caveat...it doesn't look too bad on it's own.


On Saturday it pretty much failed at what was the essence of it's job, namely to provide an alternative colour when our more traditional one clashes with that of our opponents.  Having said that, the way this particular match panned out, the two sets of players could have all been wearing the same kit and you could still tell them apart."

writeup - 'BOKS KICKING'

NOTE - In between the Springbok and Fiji matches, we learned Ireland's fate on our RWC2023 bid...


November 18 : IRELAND-23 FIJI-20

"After my tweet at full-time was mostly negative I got a reply of 'Play new players everyone says, Joe does and Ireland win and ye still aren't happy 😒😒😒'.  I take the point, I really do.  But for all the caveats and narratives in the world, I still have to classify this as a poor 80-minute display from Ireland, and I just have to hope that people realise that I mean that in a constructive way rather than a curmudgeonly one.


The reason I say it's poor is that I know that Joe plays to a particular style and from start to finish we struggled to comply; areas of the game where we should have been comfortable were anything but. "

writeup - 'XIII'

November 25 : IRELAND-28 ARGENTINA-19

"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 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."

writeup - 'JACOB'S LADDER'


...and so we arrived at the 2018 Six Nations.  Again I'll include a quote from my preview ahead of the first match to give an idea of my expectation levels at the time.


"Of course I make no assumptions about our chances.  England are going for three titles in a row and will be the team to beat.  Wales and Scotland will be equally dangerous for the rest of the tournament no matter who wins their battle tomorrow.  France are as unpredictable as ever.  Even Italy can't be taken for granted as their coach is well used to big occasions in D4 and he's not afraid to throw the odd tactical curveball.

But what I have come to realise about this current Irish set up is this...once we start a match with the right focus, nobody can ever feel comfortable playing us.  Would you have it any other way?"


February 3 : FRANCE-13 IRELAND-15

"Forget the kick itself for the moment if you can.  Just think of where Johnny's head was at when he decided to retreat into the pocket and give the call to his scrum half.  The match had been going mostly to plan before he misses an easy penalty to virtually secure a win.  Then came the try and the farce of the Belleau substitution.

All of that would make mush of my decision-making, that's for sure - I'd be running on fumes.  Yet he was able to somehow recall a similar situation against Treviso for Leinster and based on this, plus the fact that he knew his forwards were probably shattered, PLUS the fact that he seemed to be suffering from cramp moments before, he backed himself to nail it, which he did despite the improbable distance."

writeup - 'WHERE'S YOUR HEAD AT?'


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February 10 : IRELAND-56 ITALY-19

"Loads of Irish online comments were negative at full time, but I'm wondering how much of that was down to the fact that our second half, and thus the most recent in the memory, was far inferior to the first.  Yet even that forty minutes was won 28-19 with a bonus point won even not counting any scores from the first half.

But when taken in isolation, I'm not sure we could possibly hope for a better demonstration of the way Joe Schmidt wants test rugby played than minutes one through forty.  Fine, maybe the opposition wasn't exactly world beating, but do I really have to dig up the phrase 'you can only play what's in front of you'?  I guess I do.

...Two wins out of two and nine match points out of ten is exactly where we want to be.  And I really don't know what to say to those who look at our displays against France and Italy and say 'Well you wouldn't want to do that against Wales or England' because the simple fact of the matter is that we'll be set up differently on those days."

writeup - 'PROS AND CONS'


February 24 : IRELAND-37 WALES-27

"...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.

...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."

writeup - 'WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH...'


March 10 : IRELAND-28 SCOTLAND-8

"...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.

...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."

writeup - 'FOUR DOWN...'



"I doubt you'll find a team in world rugby right now that's better at squeezing every last drop of juice out of a half of rugby as this 2018 Irish vintage. 

...while most visiting sides would have been delighted to safely usher a 14-5 lead to the interval [especially with their superstar ten off the field], this lot was having none of it and when there was a fraction of space to be found up Jacob Stockdale's wing, he kicked one into the 22, made contact with it at the tryline, and got to it just before it reached the dead ball line [which Eddie Jones had extended...Sidenote of the Tournament?] to touch down.

Of course the TMO had to get involved, but again on first look I showed no fear 'IT'S OFF HIS KNEE! THAT'S A TRY! DEFINITELY OFF HIS KNEE! THAT'S A TRY!' I bellowed."


So that was that, Grand Slam won at Twickenham, possibly the best St Patrick's Day present ever.  Any rugby fan would be forgiven for thinking 'stick a fork in me, I'm done' with that but then we had Connacht saying goodbye to a legend by thumping Leinster, Ulster making the Champions Cup despite a disappointing season, Munster reaching another European semifinal and as for Leinster...ok, ok, I won't rub that in anymore.  At least not here 😜

Last but not least in this season for Ireland was a three-match series in Australia.  There was much debate amongst fans as to how Joe Schmiudt should view the trip, but we know enough about the Kiwi at this stage to appreciate he's gonna do what he's gonna do regardless of the so-called 'popular opinion'.  So how did that turn out?


"Every summer when these three-match jaunts to the southern hemisphere come around we always ask ourselves 'what we want from the tour'.  It's a fair question and one I have asked many times myself, yet when you think about it, it's approaching the series from something of a defeatist position.

This is sport we're talking about.  Ireland are slated to play three test matches.  What else could we possibly want short of three wins?  So if we're asking the question "what do we want", I have to assume we're looking ahead for silver linings on the assumption that we're going to lose a match or two, or three?

Naturally I'm being a bit facetious there.  I get the whole 'need to blood squad players' thing as much as anyone, but what I want to point out in this preview is that there has to come a time when we take a step back from the micromanaging and start asking questions like - "Hang on, we just won a Grand Slam and deservedly so.  Who's to say we can't go to Oz and keep that winning streak going?"."


June 9 : AUSTRALIA-18 IRELAND-9

"Confidence could not possibly be higher for the squad.  Even the bookies, who could have easily gone with home advantage in their pre-match odds, thought we were going to shade it.

So what went wrong?  For me it boils down to something very simple.  The type of rugby that got us this far is one that demands levels of skill and accuracy that might be at phenomenal levels, yet are still ones that you should expect if you're meant to be the second best team on the planet.

Of course it's a risk to expect a virtuoso display from Joey Carbery when he knows Sexton is waiting in the wings.  Or to expect your kick chasers to deal with Israel Folau under a high ball.  Or to expect your forwards to protect ball carriers when the likes of David Pocock and Michael Hooper are on the pitch.  Or to expect your centres to shoot out of the defensive line and avoid being hoodwinked by the footwork treachery of Kurtley Beale."

writeup - 'HIGH RISK RUGBY'


June 16 : AUSTRALIA-21 IRELAND-26

"Tadhg Furlong...was definitely deserving of (man of the match) 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."
writeup - 'SECOND BEST'


June 23 : AUSTRALIA-16 IRELAND-20

"more than anything else, you have to look at this series as more than the sum of its parts.  Somebody added up the scores from the three matches and it came out to an even 55-55, which might suggest an overall equality, though that is not what actually happened IMO.

...Another fact many like to point out is that it's our first series win there since 1979.  Again, that's some nice trivia but again, it doesn't tell the story.  Back then, for us to pull off a win like that was akin to Accrington Stanley pinching a 1-0 win over Man United on a muddy January afternoon in the FA Cup.

Now, things are very, very different.  We're not some scrappy upstarts hoping to take down bigger opposition...we ARE the bigger opposition."

writeup - 'NEW WORLD ORDER'

And now the timeline has caught up with us again.  What an amazing season it was.  Ten wins out of eleven, and I know I'm not the only Irish fan with a hint of regret we didn't manage the eleventh.  And as I have said before, that's not from arrogance...it's from watching the confidence and sense of expectation exude from the boys in green whenever they take the field this weather.

If they believe they can go even further than they already have, why shouldn't we?  Enjoy your summer folks, we'll be back harping on rugby regularly here soon.  JLP
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