Monday, March 11, 2019

IRELAND-26 FRANCE-14



I know I do these writeups to harp on my own opinion of Leinster & Ireland matches, but often I can't help drawing attention to verdicts I have seen and heard from fellow fans, particularly when they represent a seemingly large number of them. 

What I'm talking about is essentially the age-old ‘glass half full/empty’ argument, though this match in particular offered up an extreme example for us to choose which way to think about the result :  When we give our first opinion on this Irish performance, should we focus on the first 75 minutes, which we won 26-0 and earned a bonus point, or the final 5, which we lost 0-14? 

You can probably tell by my language above that my views fall in the first camp, though I need to make it clear that I don't want to ‘mock’ those in the second one, I just want to say I don't fully understand that way of thinking. 

Of course I was as disappointed as anyone to see the ‘duck egg’ gone from the French side of the scoreboard, but I can't help thinking that even if those late 14 points had actually gone Ireland's way and the final score were 40-0, the negativity would find another way to the surface, like making it all about how poor the opposition were.  

But that's just a ‘hot take’ on my part and I'd be better served making my point by looking at exactly what happened, so let's see how those final French scores came about. 

Putting down the performance based on the 14 points would be to put down Peter O’Mahony, who got blown away on his inside by Gregory Alldritt before he sent Huget through under the posts.  Yet did that negate the Munster skipper’s contributions for the rest of the match that included lineout catches, jackled turnovers and his usual ‘unseen’ wizardry? 

Putting down the performance based on the 14 points would be to put down Garry Ringrose, who strayed offside defensively at midfield allowing for a penalty that put the French deep in our territory in those closing stages.  But did that negate all the work he had done before, including key tackles and pinpoint territory kicking, most of which both prevented their scores and went on to create ours? 

Putting down the performance based on the 14 points would be to put down James Ryan and CJ Stander, whose mixup at a routine lineout conceded possession ahead of that penalty against Ringrose.  But does that negate the pair's efforts up to that point which included trojan work in the area of both  carrying and tackling, which actually got Ryan the man of the match award? 

And finally in this themed mini-sequence - putting down the performance based on the 14 points would be to put down Jordan Larmour, who danced and jinked his way deep into the French 22 only to leave himself isolated allowing them to clear their lines.  But does that negate a performance that began with a perfectly weighted territory kick in the opening minutes that directly led to our opening try courtesy of Rory Best, especially when the Leinster speedster only found out the day before that he was starting? 

And other thing about those 14 points - many of the detractors betray themselves when they suggest both tries were scored short-handed; they weren't.  Dorian Aldegheri had returned to the field in time for their scrum to win a penalty at halfway that gave them a lineout close to our line, and from there they mauled their way over. 

And speaking of yellow cards, if we bring that late sin binning into it, we must also look back at all the opportunities Ben O’Keeffe had earlier in the match to go to his pocket. Like the penalty advantage before our second five-pointer, which came after a warning for multiple red zone infractions.  Personally I don't see why the fact a try is scored is considered suitable punishment; he should go back and card the offending player.

And right from the kickoff following that try, as Tadhg Furlong was lifting James Ryan he was clattered by Penaud, an action that could have been dangerous to more than one player and thus probably should have warranted a card all on its own. 

Then in the second half, Bastereaud gets pinged or offside when we were once more on the front foot.  Had that earlier warning somehow been washed away by the Ballsbridge rain? And finally it took all of FOUR scrum penalties for O’Keeffe to finally show us he had brought his cards with him.

Oh and another thing - that second try should never have been given.  The only way the ref could have see a touch down would be if he has x-ray vision and if that's the case, he's in the wrong profession.

See how depressing a writeup can look if you start with the bad stuff that happened?  Especially if said ‘bad stuff’ was of little or no consequence to the overall result?   What say I turn things around by going back to the beginning....

Wins for both Wales and England the day before meant that our retaining our title was a big ask.  But a good performance on this day shouldn't have been, yet after what happened in Rome (another BP win Irish fans loved to moan about, though to be fair it had more evidence to back it up then so I was sort of among them) we couldn't help being sceptical about how we'd respond after a two week break. 

Yet pretty much straight from the kickoff we made it clear what the Irish brains trust had set out for us as an approach.  Find gaps in the French back field and make them regret having them.  And having received the kickoff in our own 22, we ignored the course of action most would expect from us (Murray box kick) and instead utilised the boots of both Ringrose and Larmour, with the end result being a lineout deep in their 22. 

So the game wasn't even 2 minutes old when O’Keeffe had his arm outstretched for a French penalty in strong Irish attacking situation, and from the second maul returning skipper Rory Best peeled away to go over in the corner, albeit with a little assistance from James Ryan (who didn't so much ‘latch on’ to Best rather lifted him and all but planted him over the line with the ball). 

Just like that it was 7-0 thanks to a sweet strike from the touchline by Sexton.  The perfect start in every way.  For the next twenty odd minutes, while we may have fallen foul to a few fumbles and faux pas, the French couldn't buy their way out of their own half.  Both possession and territory stats were stuck in the high 80s and low 90s ahead of the break. 

What made our second score all the sweeter for Sexton was that it came moments after he got his expected bout of ‘special attention’, which this time came from Sébastien Vahaamahina who served up his tackle on our outhalf with a hint of Grey Poupon. 

The ref however was more concerned with other infractions designed to slow down our seemingly endless front foot ball, though as I said earlier, not concerned enough to go issuing yellows. Still, with an advantage coming, Sexton deployed his trademark wraparound to perfection, befuddling the French so much that they ran into each other giving him space to score himself under the posts. 

Between the second and third tries, Garry Ringrose was incredibly unlucky not to score after making a catch almost as unbelievable as that done by Henry Slade in almost exactly the same spot at the beginning of February, before getting it to the line only to be thwarted by French defenders. 

That was not to deter our tactic of strategically kicking our way to scores, however. Minutes later Sexton stabbed one through into their 22 which may have conceded possession but when the kick is backed up by marauding forwards such as Iain Henderson (back close to his best, great to see especially with Dillane doing well and Beirne close to returning) there's the possibility of ripping the ball back, which the Ulster man duly did. 

From there we launched in a series of phases where we were never going to take ‘no try’ for an answer, and it was fittingly finished by Jack Conan, who came on for the remarkably unlucky Josh van der Flier, yet still found himself atop our tackling charts with a whopping 16. 

Either side of the break the French, in fairness, did all they could to respond, but once more our defensive line was proving tough to break down, with a great grab of scrum half Duponte by Ringrose arguably the highlight. 

It looked as though we might have similar problems at the other end when Murray, Conan and O’Mahony got their wires crossed during a strong series of phases, but after the French cleared, we went for a sneaky set piece that seemed to have Joe Schmidt's fingerprints all over it. 

He was famed at Leinster for saying things like ‘do this move the right way, and you WILL score’ and with Keith Earls standing at the number 1 position it did look like something was on.  

In the incredulous complex choreography that followed, CJ Stander peeled away from the maul, and with everyone else expecting him to look for contact as normal, he instead switched inside to Earls running at full pace who, once through the manufactured gap,  wasn't going to be stopped, 

So there we were, 26-0 up with the bonus point, and let's face it, also victory, very much in the bag.  Sexton's conversion was his final act as he and Murray were rightly replaced by Cooney and Carty, who both went on to have good moments even without adding to the score. 

Going back to our starting halfbacks, if there are problems in this Irish set up right now, my gut tells me it is to do with them. It's like they're missing a beat or even half of one, not between themselves but between them and the rest of the team. For me anyway, that could be where the difference between performances now and those in 2018 can be found, and even if it's true, we're still in the Six Nations mix going into the final weekend.

One other negative thee I heard was that Bundee Aki was supposedly quiet.  I'm not altogether sure that can be blamed on him.  Our 12s are generally used for crash ball and he has certainly shown he can bring it.  But each time we had an attacking set piece it seemed as though Mathieu Bastereaud was lined up ready to send him back where he came from, which he certainly could have, 

So rather than try to force the issue, I think we chose instead to go a different route, namely that of Ringrose getting more chances to either kick into space behind the French or go on one of his jinky runs against the grain.  For me, that just develops more options for us and increases our versatility going into the big tournament later this year. 

So that leaves us with one more competitive battle before Japan, and it's a big one.  Shame to be involved in a Grand Slam decider that's not for us this time around, but there is still a lot we can get from it and I for one can't wait. 

A lot is made about the importance of ‘turnaround time’ at the top level these days, though I wouldn't be too worried about Joe & coaching staff as they are well known for having their i's dotted and t's crossed whatever the adversity. 

I just hope we as fans can come together and turn around our levels of confidence to a place where we can get fully behind them because I defy anyone to suggest we're anything but still in the mix to make this another successful year for Irish rugby.  JLP


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

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