Monday, March 18, 2019


I'm sure if you're an Irish fan you're as keen on reading this as I am on writing it, but I really do believe it's an necessary exercise for both of us so hopefully you'll stay with me. 

To ease us in, what say I open with a distracting tangent.  One of my many nonsensical bugbears about watching rugby has to do with the graphics used by the broadcasters.  I could literally fill a month's worth of these writeups on all the different ways they annoy me, but one that really gets me has to do with the scoreline they use in the corner of the screen. 

I'm actually old enough to remember a time when that graphic wasn't there at all, and when I saw it used for the first time I thought it was pure simplistic genius.  With the match score and time elapsed on screen at all times, now anyone joining the match late can be brought up to speed in an instant. Brilliant. 

But here's the thing…these days, for reasons I cannot grasp, the score doesn't remain on the screen for the duration of the match in question. When they go to replays or other graphics with player names and stats and what not, it often disappears.  Why??? Surely in this age of technology it's possible to keep the basic match info in view at all times??? 

Anyway, like I said I could go on at length about this, but I must crack on with tying it to the match in question.  When Gareth Anscombe was ready to kick off at the Principality Stadium on Saturday afternoon, The Irish Channel Formerly Known As TV3 had a general graphic on screen with the two teams, the venue, and the commentators. 

By the time they got their match score graphic in the top left hand corner, fifteen seconds had elapsed in the match.  That's not long is it?  Why would I be complaining about that?  Sure what can happen in the first few seconds?  It's hardly going to have an impact on the rest of the match is it? 

Well unfortunately at that stage things had already begun to go wrong for Ireland.  Anscombe”s kick went straight to Jacob Stockdale, who was instantly swamped by George North along with a few team-mates and although the young Ulster man caught it he was dragged straight into touch.  Just like that, Wales have an attacking lineout. 

Now we could see the match clock, we could tell that there were just 40 seconds elapsed when Welsh skipper (and principal source of inspiration) Alun Wyn Jones rose into the air to grab the ensuing dart, and just 53 when referee Angus Gardner stuck out his arm for a penalty advantage based on CJ Stander's involvement in the maul. 

With 1 minute 8 seconds showing, the ball got to Anscombe for his first touch since all the way back at the kickoff.  It looked like his chip over the onrushing would-be Irish tacklers went more off his shin than his boot but whether by design or not, it fell perfectly for Hadleigh Parkes who touched down giving the home side the perfect start to their Grand Slam bid. 

For the record, as Anscombe used his third touch of the day to make it 7-0, the clock showed 2m 22 seconds. 

I've been harping on Leinster & Ireland rugby for over ten years now, and I've lost count of the times both have conceded the first score only to go on and win comfortably, so despite the early disappointment I wasn't all that worried as we restarted the match.  

Come the 15th minute, however, my anxiety levels were starting to rise, because even at that early stage I already had five examples for my ‘list’. 

Part of me wants to apologise to Irish rugby fans for compiling this list, but the rest of me feels its necessary to present it this way because I feel it pretty much defines the match.  It's a list of all the times when either Ireland had possession in an area of the pitch where we'd normally be expected see produce a score yet we failed, or we conceded a penalty. 

One benefit is that it offers readers the opportunity to bypass the List altogether so as not to relive the individual moments in question; possibly to see it as the ‘raw data’ from which I draw my conclusions afterwards.  Whichever way you want to approach it, here it is… 

4m - After 10 Irish phases, Healy knocks on 
5m - Irish possession, Ref says ‘penalty advantage knock on’, Wales turn it over and clear, ref claims advantage was over 
6m - Sexton takes quick penalty with crossfield kick to Stockdale who catches, sprints up touchline yet is stopped by brilliant tackle by Parkes and knocks on 
14m - On Irish lineout throw at halfway, ref awards free kick to Wales for James Ryan encroaching  
15m - A Sexton crossfield kick goes a fraction too far and is taken by Anscombe 
17m - Sexton pinged for sealing off - Anscombe kicks penalty 
21m - Off an Irish lineout Sexton kicks into Welsh 22, caught by Anscombe and cleared 
23m - On 5m lineout, Wales latch on to Irish maul and make it a choke tackle 
27m - On a free kick following a 5m scrum, CJ Stander attempts a quick tap but knocks it on 
33m - Adam Beard perfectly reads an Irish lineout throw and swats it back for his team 
33m - Ireland pinged offside at midfield - Anscombe kicks penalty
38m - Murray clears from own 22 out on the full, some might say ref could have given him call of ‘taken back in’ but he should have known himself anyway 
40m (end of first half) - Healy pinged for collapsing scrum - Anscombe kicks penalty 
40m (start of second half) - James Ryan caught in Wesh choke tackle at halfway.  
46m - Earls gets it in wide channel but has no space so his kick ahead falls easily for Biggar.  
46m - As Ireland go through phases to exit from 22 Cian Healy pinged for an unnecessary illegal clear out - Anscombe kicks penalty 
48m - After conceding first score of second half, Sexton puts restart out on the full 
51m - Irish midfield phases going nowhere, Murray box kick goes too far 
53m - It looks like Healy jackling to Irish penalty yet CJ Stander pinged for not releasing despite being pinned in ruck - Anscombe kicks penalty 
56m - After 8 attacking phases in Welsh 22, Sexton pass goes straight into touch.  
58m - More attacking phases in Welsh 22, under pressure at breakdown it looks like Tipuric knocks on yet Wales get the scrum 
58m - Porter clumsily falls over in ruck trying to get in jackling position, pinged - Anscombe kicks penalty 
65m - Sexton disrupts Welsh attempt to catch out box kick enough for him to retrieve it but he knocks on while being tackled

And there the list stops.  Last week against France, we put 26 points on the board without reply yet many Irish observers chose to focus on the concession of two tries in the final ten minutes.  This time we were the ones failing to trouble the scorers until late, and I actually thought the ‘finishing 15’ did reasonably well, albeit against a team that had done their job and had other things on their minds, though like I said we weren't getting a break for that six days earlier. 

On the roof thing, I reckon we got caught overthinking something that was very simple.  The forecast was for rain.  The stadium had a roof.  Of course it should have been closed.  I can see how it might have looked like opportunistic mind games from Warren to make changes to the original plan and force us into a decision, but to go with the more obvious choice would have both made sense and killed it as a story early.  I guess that's easy for me to say now, but it'd be tough to offer an opinion about rugby matches every Monday without the benefit of hindsight playing a factor.

But trust me, I'm not for a moment trying to suggest we should be making this performance into some kind of positive. The main reason I typed out that list is that I want to see what I can take from it as I look ahead to the World Cup at the end of the year.  Does it prove that we're absolutely doomed? 

First, we must look at the foundations on which this team is built.  And remember, that building got us to heights that included a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia, a second win over the All Blacks and second-place ranking in the world.  For me, those foundations include four key elements - Accuracy, Discipline, Murray and Sexton.  And when you look over that list, all four of them failed us in Cardiff.  

Sure, there were times when the referee made head-scratching calls (Gareth Davies dropped shoulder could have been yellow for example, much like a high tackle the intent may not have been there but the action is still dangerous).  

And sure, there were other times when the Welsh actually did something really amazing that few teams could have countered. But those are things we can do very little to control so there's no point in discussing them. 

What we now must ask ourselves is - what does Joe Schmidt do now with the World Cup just half a year away?  Every Tom Dick and Harry online is coming up with alternative strategies that would involve ripping up the playbook and starting from scratch, but for me, that would be insane. 

I am in no doubt that our recent troubles stem from our presumptive starting half backs.  Every team relies on their 9 and 10 anyway as they are of course the conduit between forwards and backs - but this particular duo have proven themselves as literal world beaters under Joe's watch.  Yet  as their form as dipped, so has that of the team.  

Just one quick point on Sexton - many are pointing to his 'grumpiness' because the cameramen zoomed in on him when he was angry at different times throughout the match, even offering slow motion replays of his anger at times.  I wouldn't want to change that part of his character because I believe that helped make him Ireland's most successful outhalf ever.

But after watching this match live I wondered were certain players even there - of course the likes of Ringrose and Earls did get touches but the swarming Welsh defence (who while impressive, were offside as much we were IMO yet not as frequently pinged) meant our attacks had fizzled out before they could get involved, and even a fraction of a second lost in timing between halfbacks can cause this. 

Does this mean Joe must drop the pair of them? Of course not, but he can certainly work closely with them in analysing what went wrong.  

Does this mean we must bin the various methods of kicking both have used to such great effect in the past?  Of course not, but he can certainly work with them in being able to identify quickly when their respective radars are faulty (and/or the opposition have a way of snuffing them out) and make the necessary changes before we fall too far behind. 

Does this mean we must forget about reaching the final four of the World Cup in September because there's absolutely no way back for this team? Of course not; Joe, Johnny, Conor, Rory, and indeed everyone in this team has bounced back from adversity before. 

After an amazing 2018, we had a target on our backs going into the following year and we most certainly got caught out, though I defy anyone to make a case that it was an absolute disaster.  

England looked unbeatable at the Aviva Stadium back in February yet they got found out by both Wales and Scotland.   And while Warren Gatland's men are definitely worthy Grand Slam champions, the target is now on their backs and if a way is found past their defence, they'll likely need more than ten tries in five matches if they want any further success this year. 

What Joe should do right now is put his feet up for a few weeks.  His charges will go back to their provinces, and all four have a lot of serious rugby to play this season so right now he can have no way of knowing what kind of squad he'll have at his disposal when it becomes time to prepare for Japan. Only then can he and his coaching staff begin working on the road ahead, and with no further club rugby to serve as a distraction before the big event kicks off. 

In the meantime, only a fool would write us off. We got slammed by Wales on Saturday, the team should rightly be slammed for what happened, but if we call ourselves fans then we should be slammed if we give up on them this far out.   

For now, we can do no more than offer our sincere congratulations to the Wlesh players,coaches and of course passionate supporters.  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 Edinburgh v Leinster preview on Friday.  Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links.  Do stay tuned!

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019