"We were underdone, we were a bit heavy-legged...they looked sharper than we were" - Joe Schmidt post-match
Even before kickoff I was all ready to defend an Irish defeat in this writeup. In my preview on Friday I said England would win, though only by 3 and I was actually doing that in defiance of the bookies who said it would be 8.
Imagining the landscape of the Irish ruggersphere had that been the final score wouldn’t be difficult. The same negativity would be there from those who are nowhere to be seen in the conversation when the boys in green are doing well and after years of experience it has become relatively easy to counter their callous curmudgeonry.
But for this test match we’re talking about a much different conversation, aren’t we. So different that even I can’t help but react to Joe’s claim that we were “underdone” by dragging the metaphor to its fullest extreme. If it’s a cooking reference we’re looking for, England made us look raw on Saturday, and not in a sushi kind of way.
That makes this writeup quite the challenge, doesn’t it? Now I have to somehow write about this tonking in such a way as to make it look as though we have an actual chance of competing in Japan. Well to give you a general sense of where I’ll be coming from, while I still firmly believe we are capable of performing in the matches that count, it would all be in spite of what we saw in Twickenham because the positives are few and far between.
So rather than lead you on a journey through the eighty minutes as I normally do in these articles, what I’ll do this time is come up with some general headings and see if harping on them can make any sense out of all the chaos.
STAGES OF READINESS
Just over a year ago the Newcastle Falcons came to Donnybrook to play Leinster in a preseason friendly. The final score was 42-17 to the Premiership outfit and the margin was totally justified as we were bettered in every aspect of the game. Still, even the most pessimistic observer knew there was very little to be learned from the result, at least when it came to being a predictor of the season to come - Leinster retained the Pro14 title and reached another European final while the Falcons ended up being relegated to the Championship.
Of course I’m not trying to draw a direct parallel from that preseason match to this, but it does help explain a general point - different nations approach preparation in different ways. In the Premiership, teams are expected to be at full strength from round one, and this was reflected in Newcastle’s display. On the other hand, for years now the Irish provinces, Leinster in particular, have tended to go into the opening rounds of the Celtic League with their elite players wrapped in cotton wool.
This difference was highlighted in the two weekends leading up to Saturday’s match. While Ireland were wool-wrapping against Italy before jetting off to Portugal for some climate training outside the Carton House media bubble, England were close enough to full strength for a brace of bruising battles with An Breatain Beag*.
Just to be clear, I’m not belittling the Irish approach to preseason; I’m merely highlighting the contrasting mindsets. Although it will forever be a disappointment for rugby fans to get excited about a big match only for one or both of the teams involved to be more concerned with future battles, the philosophy does make sense in the grand scheme of things and it’s not as though Ireland hasn’t ever had success on the back of it.
But unfortunately, this doesn’t even come close to accounting for a 42-point deficit. In fact, I pretty much had the above argument ready to go in the event of my own prediction actually coming to pass, which means we have to look further for reasons and possible solutions.
At another stage of the post-match interview, Joe Schmidt meekly pointed out that in the early stages there were some positives for Ireland, and to be fair he wasn’t wrong so I won’t leave them out.
Recently eirSport showed a replay of our World Cup 1991 defeat to Australia at Lansdowne Road - as a sidenote I enjoyed it despite the result as it was a fascinating glimpse into the sport as it was played at the time. But what most Irish fans now say about that match is that it is the closest we have ever gotten to the World Cup semifinals, and for three marvellous minutes between Gordon Hamilton’s try and Michael Lynagh’s, we felt like we were there.
Using that same logic, Ireland were ranked number one in the world for about six minutes on Saturday, having the lead as they did in two bouts of three after a Jordan Larmour try and two impressive Ross Byrne placekicks.
Of course I’m being tongue in cheek about the ranking thing as I don’t care about them, but it is worth at least mentioning here that for the opening 25 minutes, while we were already making errors that would get worse as the match went on, there were at least some positives to go with them.
And as crazy as it may seem given the final score, the Larmour try in isolation gave us a brief reminder of that glorious 2018 Paddy’s Day on the same ground as Stockdale did a chip and chase down in the same corner, only this time rather than get a good ricochet off his leg, it bounced kindly for his fellow winger who gave good support.
That opportunity came from a good steal at the lineout by Iain Henderson, who looked lively in the first half and there were other good things like a Bundee Aki turnover, some decent mauling, and intelligent territory kicking to get us beyond the English defence.
But from a few paltry paragraphs of positives we must go directly to the long litany of lacklustre lineouts.
Not many test squads can function without a consistent lineout but the way Joe’s is set up, it is absolutely non-negotiable. Like I said we actually showed some decent mauling in the early stages but having that arrow in your quiver isn’t much use when your bow is badly broken.
First I want to repeat a bugbear of mine when it comes to stats. Officially Ireland won 10 out of 15 but that does not tell the complete picture. I’d like to see an extra figure in brackets beside the 10 to indicate ‘clean’ lineouts, namely ones that look as though the intended call paid off. If we did that here, the number would be much lower.
Much of the failure was down to pressure from the English locks Kruis and Itoje but still, such intimidation is to be expected at this level and we should be able to combat it. And there’s certainly no excuses for Devin Toner not being there as you’d assume some kind of understanding between Rory Best and Iain Henderson, and what’s more, Sean Cronin had a dodgy dart or three himself when paired with his own provincial team mate.
The issue appears to be deeper. It looked like our patterns have become so predictable that Itoje was always standing exactly where the ball was going, and that in itself must be disconcerting to the hooker before the dart is thrown. It’s a shame we can’t ‘call an audible’ and go for a simpler alternative when we see how the opposition is set up - we might not get the power play front foot ball we hoped for but surely that’s a small price to pay for possession.
One of the more frustrating trends on the day was England pinning us back in our 22 after we had actually done a decent job of defending at midfield, only for us to squander the set piece and give them a prime attacking opportunity anyway, which they would duly take.
Something surely has to change in this area, because I'm not sure that hoping the accuracy returns of its own accord is going to cut it.
Another reason I would have stuck up for us after a defeat was if it looked throughout the contest that our general systems were in good order, yet they were not. On our very first bout of midfield possession before a minute had ticked by on the clock, Jean Kleyn took it into contact yet had absolutely no support and Itoje could barely believe his luck as he was able to step through and take the ball for himself. Definitely not a good start and it certainly wasn’t the last time our attacking rucks were woefully under-resourced on the day.
Then there was our defence. Try as we did to hold our systems, the sheer power of the English runners was putting us on the back foot almost every time, whether by the strength of the brute force itself, or by the suggestion of it thanks to decoy runners, particularly Manu Tuilagi. A bit like the lineouts they were often able to split our centres like they knew exactly where they’d be - another area we might want to throw a few "curve-balls" perhaps.
Next was the missed tackles - Larmour 5, Kearney and Luke McGrath 4, Ringrose and Stockdale 3 - and those are just the ones that were attempted. This is another stat category that doesn’t give us the full picture. Conor Murray was tempted off the wrong side of the scrum for their opening try, Stockdale always chose wrong between stick or twist on his wing when it mattered, and in a separate issue the Ulster winger was often bundled into touch with the ball. None of the above is good for any team, but it’s bound to give Joe extra headaches.
Two injury concerns for Ireland arose from this match and ironically they involved players showing contrasting levels of leadership. I thought Cian Healy was fronting up the most in our pack to what the English were doing before he went off. As for his leaving the field on foot, I don’t see why we want to have a ‘good sign’ when there could always be a risk of further damage. Get the stretcher every time, I say.
Church’s one low point was the opening scrum where he seemed to get out maneuvered by Kyle Sinckler for the penalty that opened the scoring, but my bigger concern would be what led to the set-piece in the first place.
One thing that makes this margin of victory even harder to stomach is that Ben Youngs had such an absolute stinker of a match, especially with the boot. But I wonder how we’d be comparing his outing to Conor Murray’s had both played the same amount?
The match was just two minutes old when Murray took a catch outside his own 22 then threw a pass to Larmour that was at best ill-advised and at worst, downright lazy. Put that alongside his failure to read the English plan on the way to their opening try, a lack of urgency as our attacking ball kept getting slower at the breakdown and possibly a mistimed tackle that led to his early withdrawal, and we certainly have ourselves a concern that hasn’t been fixed since the Six Nations.
But that’s not to say the leadership issues were just from him - there was still a ton of experience out there and apart from Healy you couldn’t say a single Irish starter came close to matching their corresponding opponent on the day.
"Maybe we’re lulling the rest of the World Cup field into a false sense of security?"
I have heard that theory bandied about, but if our plan on Saturday was to keep our cards close to the chest, we were doing so with the cards held the wrong way round because Eddie Jones’ men have had our number for the last 160 minutes we have played them in 2019.
And their constant use of Manu Tuilagi in their attacking strategy on Saturday had me resurrecting a theory I have held for a while - is Garry Ringrose being used to his full potential? And if not, is this by design?
We have all seen what he can do since he came to this level and he certainly plays like he belongs. It might just be me but his positive attacking contributions always seem to come from broken play situations, and maybe if some set moves were designed primarily for him, his natural talent could be guaranteed to make something from it. Just a thought.
WHAT WE NEED FROM THE WELSH OUTINGS
Had we even lost narrowly to the English, I reckon we could have taken that forward to continue to look at different combinations for the final two warmups, but with this heavy defeat coming as it did with so many expected starters, I fear they will need another run out together as soon as possible so maybe there shouldn't be too many changes for our return to Cardiff next weekend. Again, I personally wouldn’t see the pressure was on us too much to win that first match, but we absolutely want to be a lot more competitive and if nothing else ease the lineout worries.
One or two more points on individual performances - Ross Byrne had a couple of mistakes like a kick put to touch on the full but his two efforts from the tee were good and he was far from responsible for our overall lack of progress going forward. As for Jean Kleyn, well I really was rooting for him but he was comfortably the 4th best starting lock and of all the decisions Joe has to make in response, surely moving him to the backburner is among the easiest.
Bundee Aki impressed enough at times to show he should remain in the forefront of Ireland’s centre plans - having been caught out for reliable backup last time it’s good for us to have more options and Aki certainly took his late try well even if it offered us no consolation.
A word on Nigel Owens, a late replacement for the delayed Jaco Peyper. While I could never suggest his calls had anything to do with the result, his mindset was definitely tuned to ‘friendly’ rather than ‘test’. Farrell was told to ‘not take too long’ after a ball fell off the tee when he could have been told ‘you have ten seconds’, Tuilagi’s big hit on Larmour may have ticked some guideline boxes yet still looked dangerous, and Kruis’ high shot on Carty could have been red not yellow.
Plus I must not ignore the display of the English team overall - they were clinical, powerful, well-drilled, and had loads of fine individual displays from Sinckler, Itoje, Curry, Underwood, Farrell, Cokasinga among others. I was particularly impressed with their quick passing under pressure; if they continue in this vein they will be extremely hard to stop in Japan.
But for Ireland, the job is now to get the squad as a whole focused on proving that this disappointment was just a blip. If we looked more raw than undercooked, we’ll need our master chefs to tinker with the ingredients and turn up the heat, though it's probably best that I leave the analogy there as it’s only making me hungry. JLP
(* - apologies to Irish scholars as I dropped the 'séimhiú' twice there, but I was on an alliteration roll and besides, given I was born a 'yank' hopefully you're impressed enough that I know what a séimhiú is 😜)
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Tuesday - Guest posts
Wednesday - Podcast (featuring interview with Keego)
Thursday - Upcoming rugby on Irish TV
Friday - Wales v Ireland preview (video)
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