Monday, September 09, 2019

IRELAND-19 WALES-10


Before I get into the match itself, I’d like to get this pesky topic of the world rankings out of the way, simply because so many in the ruggersphere seem to view it as some kind of elephant in the room even though all I see is a lazy cat curled up asleep in the corner.
In case the news somehow escaped you, the numerical jiggery-pokery that is the World Rugby ranking formula has decreed that Ireland is number one going into the 2019 World Cup. Of course I’m not surprised at all by the consternation coming from outside the four provinces, but although we’re known as a nation of begrudgers, the sheer volume of home-grown negativity surrounding this unavoidable fact has been astounding.
Two brief points about it is all that I will offer, though I could do many more. First, the notion that we should not be ranked number one because of the recent disappointment in Twickenham is absolutely absurd. Leinster went four matches without winning towards the end of last season’s Pro14, all against teams from the same conference, yet still finished ranked number one.
While the numbers used to rank the test nations are worked out differently, the principle remains the same. Ireland’s successful run in 2018 is still contained within our current ranking points total. Sure, two defeats to England plus one to Wales lost us some ground, but not only have the home-and-away wins over our Celtic cousins clawed some back, other teams have also had disappointments - England lost to Wales and drew with Scotland; the All Blacks drew with the Boks and lost to the Wallabies.
Second point...how can you call yourself an Irish fan and not see a number one ranking as a net positive? Of COURSE the true number one in the world is going to be decided in Japan; I really don’t see anyone saying otherwise. Yet the rankings are there, and although I’d be surprised if more than three people actually understood how the points work, nobody believes the numbers are being manipulated, do they? So it should be simple - We’re fans of a team > There’s a ranking > Our team is number one right now > We say “woo hoo!” and move on.
WOO HOO! Moving on…

In my preview for this match I focused on Conor Murray and Jean Kleyn, and both were involved before a minute had gone on the clock.
The Welsh put the kickoff straight to our scrum half, which he duly caught and dispatched directly to touch. From the resulting lineout, our visitors worked a few phases before Kleyn was pinged for being a bit overeager with his line speed. Although the penalty was kickable for someone the calibre of Leigh Halfpenny, he pushed it wide of the post, only for Johnny Sexton to make his first attacking contribution of this warmup series a drop kick that went straight into touch.
So all in all, not a great start for Ireland, and in some ways this continued for the first ten minutes, during which Warren Gatland’s men were credited with 88% territory and 85% possession and also our first lineout of the day, where we appeared to be making a statement by making Kleyn the target, got pinched by Tipuric making it look like it was to be another dreary day with the set piece.
But in other ways, there were definite positives there for us which only couldn’t be seen if you had chosen not to look. Despite all that possession and territory, Wales had zero points on the board. The one actual chance they had at a try, which arose from the central scrum following Sexton’s drop out error, resulted in a grubber through to the corner intended for George North only for him to be denied by Rob Kearney whose 91 caps told him to start running moments before the kick was even made.
Another time in that opening spell, North found himself swamped by Irish defenders which made him pass it straight to Conor Murray. Then CJ Stander ripped a ball free from the grasp of Wainwright. Then our line speed put Rhys Patchell under so much pressure that he forced a long pass which saw Parkes clobbered by Robbie Henshaw putting them on the back foot.
I could go on; in fact, why don’t I. A series of 12 phases at midfield was going nowhere for them until they were rescued by Aki getting pinged for not releasing, yet after the kick was dispatched to touch, their set play off the lineout saw them thwarted by a choke tackle led by Kleyn and supported by Cian Healy.
And even after our second lineout dart didn’t work (though to be fair our original effort was interrupted by the ref giving out to the Welsh for closing the gap so we had to change our plan), we made sure it didn't cost us as the next time we had to defend in our own 22, skipper Rory Best came to the rescue with one of his classic bouts of jackling.
Next our first scrum was put under a bit of pressure but Jack Conan did immensely well keeping the ball under control and after 9 phases, our centres Henshaw and Aki combined well for the second time in the early stages to make space for Jordan Larmour to belt up the touchline before we won a penalty which gave us another lineout, only this time it was deep in the Welsh 22.
James Ryan caught that ball like it was the holy grail and after carefully guiding it down to earth, we proceeded to embark on a series of phases near the Welsh line and despite their forwards seeming to have three hands each on the ball at different rucks, we managed to recycle before a strong carry from Stander gave Murray the time to whip a pass to Sexton who shipped it on to Kearney and again it we benefited from his years of experience as he comfortably fended off his tackler to get it over the line.
So to recap that first quarter - while we did make some mistakes, we shrugged them off by both absorbing whatever pressure got thrown at our defence, and making the most of whatever sliver of a chance we could find ourselves. And that was more or less the pattern of the entire 80 minutes.
Before we get to the other tries, I need to harp on our defence. Despite the early errors from Kleyn, he was a key element of an overall phenomenal team effort without the ball that I’d dearly love to show to a room full of those who continuously decry the Irish team for being “too narrow”. Because this display shows exactly how the system can work to near perfection.
It’s all too easy to show highlights of a try we conceded from every conceivable angle which somehow proves that bunching around the breakdown can provide extra space out wide. But what those demonstrations rarely include is footage of the other times in the same match when the formation actually worked. And on this day anyway, the Welsh were unable to find a way around us. The only time they got any kind of attacking opportunity, we had to literally hand it to them.
They had already clawed three points back after Larmour was a bit over-eager on the exit clearance following the Kearney try, taking Halfpenny before he came to ground and thus allowing the full back to atone for his earlier miss.
But when Ryan carefully secured another Best dart, Dan Biggar saw Sexton’s pass coming a mile away and his interception should have gotten him all the way for five points only for an amazing bout of tracking by Robbie Henshaw. It wasn’t enough to react and sprint to catch the Welsh out half, who had come on for an HIA to the unfortunate Patchell.
Since he reached his prey just before the try line, he had to adjust the collision so as not to take him over and with help from Kearney, they somehow managed to hold him up and as if to acknowledge the feat, there was refreshing honesty from Biggar who spared us a TMO check by admitting he hadn’t gotten it down.
From the resulting scrum, it took a scything line from Hadleigh Parkes to break through the Irish resistance and while the Biggar conversion gave the Welsh a three-point lead meaning things looked grim for us, the remaining fifty minutes of the match were to tell a completely different story; the Grand Slam champions were unable to lay a glove on us in that time as our defending somehow got even better.
Right at the end of the first half we were the ones rumbling through a long series of phases - 17 in all that were going absolutely nowhere before Alun Wyn Jones wrapped us up in a choke tackle to end the period. I got the feeling that there was some context to that sequence, however, as Sexton was receiving some attention around that time and the Welsh cranked up the pressure a notch so we seemed keen just to usher him to halftime and he never got a chance to safely dispatch the ball to touch.
Not long after the match resumed, Sexton continued to be a tad below his best when an attacking high ball went way too long allowing Halfpenny to easily mark but that only make Johnny more determined to make the tactic work and when he had another go a minute later, the hang time plus a superb chase from his team mates resulted in a jackled penalty from Jordan Larmour who was clearly keen to show he wasn’t all about stepping around would-be tacklers.
The penalty put us back into the Welsh 22 and when they shipped another free kick for not closing the gap (possibly should’ve been a penalty as it was the third time they were pulled up on it), we embarked on a series of scrums - first, the phases led to Ryan held up over the line, then we battered them around the posts only for another breakdown penalty to be called so we went to the scrum again.
From here we relied on sheer will. The Welsh defence wasn’t too bad on the day itself, yet while it could probably withstand strong runs from Henshaw, Ryan and Furlong at separate times, when they come one after the other it’s an entirely different matter and Tadhg was the one who got it over the line to put us back in front.
This was a perfect time for Rory Best to bid farewell to the Aviva Stadium turf and he got a great ovation. At the same time Keith Earls was being taken off which was a major concern because although he was quiet by his standards on this day, he has more than earned the right to be a presumptive starter in Japan. Thankfully the post-match report wasn’t too bad.
Meanwhile the bench was continuing to be fed onto the pitch by both sides. I had been worried about the Welsh ‘finishers’ having an impact as they included Ken Owens, Gareth Davies and Liam Williams but in the end it was our own ones that won the final half hour. Garry Ringrose played like someone who realised he needed to stand out after Henshaw did so well in the 13 jersey outside his former Connacht team mate.

Then there was Kilcoyne throwing himself into carries, tackles and clearouts like our World Cup hopes relied on each and every one, proving he’s just the man we’ll need when they do, if only from the bench once Healy is fit. Iain Henderson was another putting himself about and even when the Welsh managed to get the ball out wide, the cover was more than able to cope, each and every time.
As the clock ticked towards the hour mark after a massive shove from the scrum, we won a lineout in their 22 (this wasn’t ‘clean’ but the stats showed the two early darts we lost were the only ones out of 12) before embarking on 15 punishing phases around the line before James Ryan got it over. The TMO couldn’t confirm but Reynal was happy the ball was grounded and although Sexton couldn't get the conversion over, our lead was now nine and thus comfortable enough given how solid our D was.
The substitutions continued - Porter got some game time on the tight head side, Carty replaced Sexton at 64m and Luke McGrath came on for Murray at 72 (he and Kleyn did plenty to dispel my pre-match concerns). None of those changes made any difference to the comfort of our second half domination. The Welsh did have one brief impressive sequence when offloads and strong runs got them out of their own 22, yet only for Ringrose to swipe it out of Liam Williams’ arms at halfway.
Eventually a high tackle on Aki put us in another strong attacking situation and if I had to find an Irish disappointment on the day, it was that we weren’t able to convert that into points as we had all our previous chances. That said, Wales shipped about a thousand penalties in those closing stages while Reynal only realised he’d brought his cards with just a few minutes left so that helped them hold us out. Which brings our series offour "warmup" matches to an end. The only question is, how warm are we? Well if we had been just told ahead of time that we’d win three out of the four, we’d probably be happy enough.

Of course the nature and venue of the defeat made it a bit much to take, but since then we have had two decent wins against a team that has beaten England twice this year, with players getting game time, several combinations being tested, and as I’m putting the final touches to this writeup, reports are coming through that the 31 selected for the plane have all been passed fully fit to travel.
Another who was having his last outing at Lansdowne Road was Joe Schmidt. His first match was against Samoa, and of course we’re all hoping against hope our encounter with the same opposition on October 12 won’t be his last!!! But it was the third match against the All Blacks that set the tone. Despite the crushing ending, that was a performance which showed the true quality he was able to get out of a squad that went on to evolve during a six-year period that had way more ups than downs.
So there we have it. The debating can stop. The analysis can stop. Even the whinging can stop (not sure if every online commenter can manage that one though 😜). The next time we see the boys in green will be at kickoff time on Sunday, September 22 and whether we’re in the International Stadium Yokohama, at the pub having “brunch” or at home, it will be time for the supporting to start.

Maybe if we can try to think positively about our chances (whether or not looking at the rankings helps us do that) it will help US get warmed up for the fantastic 44-day feast of test rugby that lies ahead. JLP

PS - many thanks once more to Big Joe Shep, Keego and DTwo Bar & Night Club for hosting the World Cup preview last Friday. To those who were there on the night, let's just say my plan to jinx the Welsh seems to have worked! 😉

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Wednesday - Podcast (featuring interview with @RugbyKino)
Friday - Leinster 2019/20 season preview (video)
Saturday - Liveblog of Leinster A v Ulster A from Energia Park
Monday - Ireland's RWC prospects overview

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