Monday, February 25, 2019

ITALY-16 IRELAND-26



“Yeah, but sure they won, didn't they?”

We all have someone in our lives who will ask us this during the week when we see them.  It could be a close relative, it could be a neighbour, it could be that guy Fergus from HR you always seem to meet in the break room. They're not real fans of rugby, but they know you are, so when they see your grumpy demeanour as they bring up the sensitive subject of this match, that's the kind of response you'll get. 

The annoying thing about it is that they're mostly right.  Imagine a company expecting profits of 3 billion Euro over a calendar year moaning about ‘only’ hitting 1 billion.  I dare say a lot of people would be more than happy with that final figure. 

In our case, we were expected to win this match by 30 points.  I actually thought that was an insult to Conor O’Shea and his set up before a ball was even kicked, but given we were starting with our world-class halfbacks while their own talisman was forced to watch from the sidelines, it was certainly realistic. 

What transpired was 80 minutes of Schmidt-ball failing at its most fundamental level.  When you take the match apart and analyse the plays individually, you see enough ‘systems failures’ to warrant a week's worth of DVD sessions, let alone just Monday morning's. 

But when you put them back together, the picture still looks the same as it did when we started… 

“Yeah, but sure they won, didn't they?”

I guess it's a fact of life that just because you don't want to hear something doesn't mean it can't be true.  And the feckers saying things like that probably don't even know about the bonus point we also won!

As far as I'm concerned, if we only want to discuss this match for the negatives, it won't help us at all.  We need to acknowledge them while still looking for silver linings, and I reckon there were a few, if well hidden. 

The biggest incident that gave me hope happened around the 59 minute mark.  We had been groaning since kickoff at all the little niggly errors - even our first touch, Seán O’Brien receiving the kickoff, gave us a sign of things to come in that he dropped it but it fell behind him and thus he was afforded a chance to clean things up. 

By the end of the third quarter, we had managed to edge ourselves back in front but the way this match was going, 3 points was anything but a comfortable cushion.  And at this stage, the groan-worthy incidents were coming even more closely together than before. 

On a day when lineouts were our chief source of anxiety, we actually clicked one on our own throw only for Conor Murray to have it stripped from him.  Then there's another reprieve as we quickly get another lineout, but this time we lost possession altogether. 

Now to be fair, our defence, built around a patchwork on-field XV as it was long before this stage, was holding up pretty well and the Italians were forced to kick, but although Andrew Conway seemed to have a read on the catch and is well capable of doing so, he couldn't grab this one and it was another knock on. 

Enter Tito Tebaldi, who was having the game of his life. Should he have been named man of the match?  I'm really not so sure - although being on the losing team may not automatically disqualify you, being on a team that lost at home by ten might, especially in this competition. 

But it was his quick thinking with the knock on advantage that saw him immediately kick into the space on the far side of the pitch and it found a perfect line putting us in touch in our own 22. 

From everything I have seen from Joe Schmidt-coached Ireland over the years, the decision over our next course of action should have been very simple. Secure the lineout, rumble through a series of exit phases, and if we get a line break well and good but if we get stopped around our own 22, get Murray to clear to half way. 

But what we did instead was something very, very un-Schmidt-like.  Before the Italian line could form we took a quick throw to make the most of the broken play situation that was before us, and although we were putting ourselves under a lot of pressure to produce accuracy on a day when we appeared to leave it behind in Dublin, the plan worked and moments later we won ourselves a penalty at halfway. 

That is what gives me hope.  Having a strategy that is based on high “risk v reward” evaluations is all well and good but the fact remains that players are not robots.  Some of your passes won't stick.  Some of your darts will sail over the jumper. Some of your tackles will be high enough to either get pinged or allow a strong runner to go through you.  And some days, like this day, all of the above will happen in the same match. 

But if you have enough confidence in yourself to look up from the playbook and across at who you're facing on the field of play, it's always possible to find a way through and maybe you won't win by a cricket score, but sometimes even a 1-point ‘football’ score is still enough (especially in a World Cup knockout). 

There were other mitigating factors on the day I thought, like the home side not being properly sanctioned for lack of discipline.  Joe won't be happy about our own total of 9 penalties shipped, but not only did the Italians have a whopping 14, that doesn't include the advantages nor does it take into account the numerous late hits on Johnny Sexton about which he appears to have given up complaining. 

Another thing was the fact that our players were dropping like flies in the first half.  My biggest concern wasn't that Bundee Aki was forced to leave the game, it was that he actually played on and made a carry or two before he did.  It seemed a nasty knock he took off the Stadio Olimpico turf and failing the HIA proves he should have played no further part. 

This already forced us into a major change as Keith Earls had to come off the wing into the centre, and while he had a good showing overall including a try, there were clear timing issues between himself and Sexton once or twice. 

So the last thing we wanted to happen was for our other starting centre Chris Farrell to come a cropper, and sure enough in the latter stages of the half he gets up from a tackle with what looks like a nasty ‘stinger’ which also makes further tackling unwise. 

I'm not suggesting that without the dodgy arm we would have been able to prevent Italy's second try, but it certainly didn't help that Farrell was the last man facing Luca Morisi as he got to the line. 

Let's be clear - I'm not making excuses here.  I just like to keep a safe distance from extreme opinions unless I feel it's absolutely necessary, and with every Irish megabyte of information about the match I've seen so far being negative, I just feel the need to reign it in a bit. 

But now it's time (finally some might say) to start exploring the negatives.  The lineouts are as good a starting point as any.  Whether or not you believe that the hooker is totally responsible when things go wrong, this was a bad time for the set-piece to be going wrong on his watch. 

And for the ones that did stick, he didn't seem able to work his magic for getting on the end of mauls and falling over the line, nor were there the line breaks or bone-crunching hits that have become his trademark for Leinster.  It was as though after missing the mark badly with his first throw, he carried that failure with him the rest of the way. 

But it's not like the issue was rectified the minute Niall Scannell took to the field, which suggests a broader problem around the pack.  While in some way it's OK to take comfort that things will improve when Best, Toner, Ryan and Beirne return to the 23, it is still troubling to be unsure of how we'd do without them. 

Still when it comes to our starting Connacht locks I wouldn't want to be too critical because they both had a pretty good game in the loose, particularly Ultan Dillane.  Neither will have done enough to rule themselves out of contention by a long stretch. 

As I suggested earlier, I agree with the choice Peter O’Mahony as man of the match, on account of a series of much needed contributions throughout.  However, I still have reservations about him as captain.  Maybe I missed it on the ref mic but I reckon a bit more pressure could have been applied on the ref for the amount of Italian no-nos and this is an area where Rory Best tends to shine.

When it comes to our four tries, the first was classic Schmidtball.  One of the reasons Aki stayed on after his head knock was that we were in the midst of a 19-phase series that ended up with Roux crashing over, so to be fair, it wouldn't have been easy to pick up the fact that he had his bell rung. 

The second try was classic Jacob Stockdale.  The Italians had just gotten on the board when they had a major systems failure of their own on the restart which meant it fell perfectly for the Ulsterman and while he makes those finishes look easy they are anything but.  Not every winger even at test level would canter to the line from there as he did. 

But credit to the Italians for not giving up, though while they did impress in patches and had strong outings from the likes of Tebaldi and Hayward, I think it was more a case of them taking the advantages we gave them rather than creating their own.  And seeing how their tails were up having taken the lead before the break, that we prevented them from scoring at all after it cannot be ignored. 

Try number 3 was finished by Earls and came about once more after multiple phases in their 22.  As has been said several times, it's far from pretty but it can still be effective, especially when times are tough and we're virtually relying on muscle memory. 

Once the fourth try was within our reach, we simply had to go for it.  Many question whether or not we should have replaced Murray and/or Sexton when things weren't working but I certainly can't blame Joe for going ‘all-in’ on the notion that his chances of success are better when they're on the pitch. 

We did need another bit of luck for the bonus point score, as when Federico Ruzza climbed to swat down another of our attacking lineouts yet it found its way into touch allowing us a ‘do-over’.  This time everything worked, the maul got us to the line, and Murray applied the finish. 

I was hoping for another score before the end as a 15-point margin at least would maximise our ranking points, but at that stage I knew I was being greedy.  The thinking should have been "take the five match points and get out of dodge to lick the wounds", and you couldn't help having sympathy for Ian McKinley not snatching a losing bonus right at the end. 

So there it was.  Atrocious display by our high standards, but a bonus point win nonetheless and with Wales halting England the day before, it still keeps the Championship alive for us, slim though the chances may be. 

All we can do is let Joe and his staff get on with it in the meantime, even if it is great craic going on line and suggesting we know what the answer is 😉.  So far in this job they have had similar ‘lean’ spells form-wise with his squad (as has every other coach at this level, yes even the All Blacks), but each time they seem to be able to regroup and come back stronger.  

Hopefully as fans we have seen enough to be able accept that while we have been far from our best in this 2019 iteration of “Rugby's Greatest Championship”, we believe that they can sort things out in time for the one in the autumn that is actually even greater.  JLP


Later this week we'll have a guest post from Keego plus the return of Mark Jackson's Six Nations Team Of The Round on Tuesday, Harpin Points on Wednesday, Telly post on Thursday and our Scotland v Ireland preview on Friday.  Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links.  Do stay tuned!

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