Monday, September 02, 2019

WALES-17 IRELAND-22



"Not that all was rosy from the Irish...but I have to start by saying that this was a monumental result achieved with a mostly well-worked, well-executed gameplan that...injected a huge dose of championship-winning belief into a squad that badly needed it." - HarpinOnRugby Feb 2013

IN PLANE SIGHT

I should’ve known the year but I’ll be honest and admit I had to check it.  Saturday’s match in Cardiff reminded me of a previous meeting at the same venue when we built a big lead in the first half only for the Welsh to get close in the second, leaving our fans curiously torn between celebrating the win and moaning about the comeback.

And the similarities don’t end there; it was to be the last visit to the (then) Millennium Stadium by our coach (though Kidney probably didn’t know it at the time).  We were even trying to recover from a different disastrous day at Twickenham; although it was a lot longer than a week previous, it was still too fresh in the memory for my liking. Now hopefully the similarities DO end here, as we all know how that particular Six Nations went for Ireland!!!

Once again the opinion among Irish fans now seems divided, and let’s just say that if you were one of those who was unable to focus on the positives, then this writeup probably isn’t what you’re looking for.  All things considered, while the matchday squad was far from our top one for the World Cup, I found it immensely satisfying to see an Irish side able to get through eighty minutes staying within themselves and for the most part playing the way they wanted rather than trying too hard to make amends for the previous weekend.

In fairness, there’s no disputing that despite a comfortable edge in both possession (56%) and territory (63%) in the first half, Gatland’s men could only muster three points in that time, and even from the TV coverage you could tell that the home crowd was not impressed.  They weren’t so much “raising the roof” as perhaps willing it to open so they had something brighter to look at.

But as the old saying goes, “you can only play what’s in front of you” so let’s look at how our boys did just that.  We started conservatively, which made perfect sense given where our morale was. Smart territory kicks were the order of the day in those early stages, and as we all held our breath for our first lineout, we managed a clean take, strong power play move, inside pass to Stockdale finding a break, and finally Welsh skipper for the day Josh Navidi shipped a pen allowing Jack Carty to give us a 7th minute lead.

Then a couple of little blips started creeping in, there’s no denying that.  Our attempts to exit from the restart kept falling afoul with a mistimed loop play here, niggly knockons there, and finally a penalty in front of the posts which Jarrod Evans duly popped over to level the scores on 15m.  And when they dragged Will Addison into touch shortly after the restart, it looked like our hosts might have been on the way to finding their mojo.

But when they took that lineout quickly it didn’t look as though all 15 men in red were on the same page, and eventually they squandered any advantage gained by kicking it back to us.   After a good catch by Addison and a superb carry by Dave “would be man of the match had he played longer” Kilcoyne, we suddenly had a sniff of some decent front foot ball.

The quick recycle after the Munster prop’s clean break gave Carty the chance to slip Andrew Conway through, and after his mazy run around several would be tacklers (perhaps with a hint of assistance from a Chris Farrell block/decoy) he could have gone over himself but instead used the space outside for his fellow winger Stockdale to bag his ten thousandth try for Ireland.

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Obviously even the most optimistic Irish fan wasn’t fully satisfied at this stage, given how we also led at Twickers.  And it’s true we continued to find ourselves penned in our own half, but with Jarrod Evans at 10, the Welsh lacked that spark to turn any advantage into points so the play continued to meander back and forth between halfway and our 22 no matter who had the ball.  There were more knockons, more stoppages, plus there were a few jackled penalties; hardly a surprise given the likes of Peter O’Mahony and James Davies were on the pitch.

Soon after Evans missed what seemed like an easy chance for three further points after Jack Conan was pinged offside, Aaron Shingler attempted an offload which was perhaps too ambitious for the situation and it went to ground.  Stockdale was the quickest to react and when he eyes any kind of space before him and puts his boot to the ball, it tends to bounce to his will so it was no surprise that moments later he was touching down for try number ten thousand and one.

From there the half kind of fizzled out - Kilcoyne had some more strong runs, there were more knockons from both teams, and when Conan atoned for his earlier ping by controlling well at the back of a scrum to win a penalty as the clock went red, Carty was unable to add an extra three points to our lead but all things considered we would have taken a 12-point cushion at the break all day long.

Nobody expected the Welsh to do anything but change things for the better at the break, and with all due respect to young Jarrod, they were a completely different proposition with Rhys Patchell at the helm.  That said, anyone who suggests that we somehow capitulated after he entered the fray simply wasn’t watching the same match as I did.

If anything we got better ourselves, particularly in the third quarter, despite losing a couple of our stand out players; Addison for a spell in the blood bin and Kilcoyne as an injury precaution.  Their replacements did well including Andrew “Loose or Tight I’ll do what’s right” Porter (very much doubt that has a hope of catching on 😜) who won a penalty on his very first scrum.

Then after we won a free kick at the next one, referee Romain Poite gave the Welsh a word of warning so that when we got another penalty shortly afterwards, he had no choice but to send their replacement tighthead Leon Brown to the naughty step, giving us a perfect (and rare on the day) opportunity for possession, territory and an extra man all at the same time.  Did we have the confidence to make the most of it?

Well after Rory Best (on for Niall Scannell who had a decent first half) wisely opted for a scrum, Conan took the ball from the base followed by some phases before our Connacht halfback pairing of Marmion and Carty seemed to put Conway through for a score only for the final pass to be judged forward by Poite.

This seemed to make our pack even more determined and a monster shove made the most of the extra man to regain us the put-in.  This time Conan showed more neat control at the back (an oft under-appreciated skill by observers unless someone like Jamie Heaslip happens to be doing commentary) which persuaded the referee to go under the sticks for the penalty try.  Some might say he could have given a final warning, but the way the scrums were going at that point it would probably only have delayed the inevitable.

So as the clock ticked into the final quarter and the benches continued to empty, we now had a 19-point lead, meaning we were again provisionally "on top of the world" (if you don’t know I’m writing that with tongue firmly in cheek, you don’t know me).  All I could think of was how the match could finish one of two ways - either we would bring the lead home or even perhaps extend it, which would mean the curmudgeons could only resort to something like “this proves nothing”, or, as was always more likely, we would take our foot off the pedal a tad allowing the Welsh to make Warren’s final outing at HQ at least a shade more memorable.

The stats don’t lie - Wales won that final quarter 14-0 and the two tries were achieved by first Jack Carty plus Luke McGrath, and then Garry Ringrose, being wrong footed by Owen Lane and Rhys Patchell respectively.  But I have to say I find it baffling that so many are putting all their attention onto those final actions of each sequence as if they demonstrate some kind of crisis in the camp, because I saw a completely different overall defensive picture, and hopefully Andy Farrell & co did too.

On our exit after the penalty try, Conway got caught by determined Welsh chasers which meant they won a penalty that gave them an attacking lineout in our 22.  As the ball was thrown in, the clock read 58:44. It wasn’t to be until 63:07 when Lane was dotting down. On their first attempt Rory Best brilliantly snaffled one from a maul and after we cleared, Patchell & co only got back into our 22 by way of another penalty and even then it took them seven phases to make the space for Lane to get across. But it certainly can’t be said we let them walk it over.

Try number two came after an even longer battle.  When yet another Irish penalty at midfield meant we had to face a lineout close to our own line, this time the clock read 67:08 and Patchell didn’t score until 75:19.  Sure, Elliot Dee came within a whisker of touching down in that time, but you could also say he was thwarted by decent last-gasp efforts from both Ringrose & McGrath.

I have some stats to back me up on our final quarter defensive effort.  Overall our tackling, which was up near the top of a long list of criticism the week before, was much improved.  Having missed 33% despite having only 116 to make at Twickers, this time we only missed 12 out of 154, ie 8%. And to highlight the contribution of our bench in the second half, while Iain Hensderson led our tackling charts with 16, next after him were Best with 13 and Jordi with 11.  

Of course I’m not saying that being wrong-footed for the tries should be ignored, but neither should be the defensive shift we were putting in at the same time.  Had our tackling been more like last week, I very much doubt we’d be arguing right now over whether or not a victory was a good thing.

And that’s not all that happened between the two Welsh scores; there were also a couple of, shall we say, debatable decisions from Monsieur Poite and his team of officials.  The first is a niggly point but on 69m Leon Brown was pinged for a penalty at the scrum, something for which earlier saw him get yellow.

Now before a tsunami of abuse heads towards me from across the Irish Sea, I’d like to mitigate my observation with two factors.  First, yes, I know the original yellow was more of a call against the team, rather than just Brown, for persistent penalties. And second, yes, I know Ireland were pinged several times in the second half and possibly could have also seen yellow.  Still, none of that takes from the fact that when you repeat the no-no that saw you binned, we should at least talk about the possibility of an increased sanction, and since nobody else has that I can see, I did.

But the next one most certainly sparked a discussion.  Jake Ball threw something of a hospital pass to James Davies, and with the ball a bit over his head and Bundee Aki ready to clobber him, the Scarlets flanker chose to jump to take the ball meaning the collision was seen as "tackling in the air" according to Poite and his TMO, meaning the resulting Garry Ringrose try needed to be called back.

The key word in the above paragraph is “chose” as far as I’m concerned, and it seemed at least some agreed with my twitter reaction at the time.  The current “in the air” Law interpretations were mostly written for kicks coming out of the sky so when we’re dealing with these loose play situations, things start to get tricky.

Given the boxes that officials are looking to be ticked to make their decisions, I can appreciate to an extent why Poite ruled out the try.  Davies was in the air when Aki made contact, and thus we find ourselves in penalty territory. But seeing how player safety is our priority, I wonder if we should include a player’s regard for their own safety?
 
Rulings like this might encourage some players to gamble by leaving their feet to draw a penalty - to be clear, I’m not saying this is what Davies did, but by the same token I’m not sure he needed to jump.  That’s probably enough on that point, except to say the penalty call helped lead the Welsh down the field for their second try.

Having gotten within range of a fictional losing bonus point, I thought our defence kicked in once more following the restart to keep them at bay and eventually forcing a knockon which allowed us to kill the match with a scrum.  All in all, we deserved the win on the day, and even an undeserved one would have been a positive for the squad so this absolutely had to be.

So that’s what I thought of the eighty minutes, though of course that is not what this match was all about.  There was another important question in the air : “who gets to be on the plane?”. Gatland went on to announce his to the world the following day, while Joe took a classically guarded approach, informing the alickadoos of his chosen 31 on Monday yet keeping us in the dark until after the return match with Wales next Saturday.  How do I reckon our Cardiff 23 fared when it came to earning a boarding pass?

Well beginning from number 1 on the team sheet, Kilcoyne definitely held both hands up, of that there is no doubt.  However, while I reckon he has done enough to put himself ahead of Jack McGrath in our loose head pecking order, anyone who thinks he should also leapfrog Cian Healy based on current form has clearly forgotten that Church was comfortably our most “up for it” forward before he was forced to leave the field at Twickenham so we won’t be giving up that shirt easily.  Also Porter’s loosehead muscle memory has been getting better which has to all but put him in the 31.

At hooker, while Scannell did well I think Rory Best definitely played like someone determined to make an impact as squad leader.  John Ryan didn’t really stand out too much though to be fair, neither did Furlong on the day. In the second row, Henderson has had a good series so far while James Ryan always puts in a shift.  Behind them, neither Beirne, O’Mahony or Conan will say they blazed a trail but I’m not sure what we expected given it was their first time together as a trio. POM of course is safe but while I would personally have the other two in my top 23, it remains to be seen if Joe feels the same.

At halfback the provincial understanding was the key to the team’s overall composure and although Luke McGrath also did well in his….

[cue my WhatsApp going berserk as news comes through of the Irish squad being announced publicly today despite earlier reports...well, I need to get this writeup finished so I guess I should let it sink in before I comment, though I have left a Facebook post up for readers to leave their two cents.  I’ll be talking to Big Joe Shep on this week’s podcast so I’ll keep my powder mostly dry for now; there’s a lot to take in, plus I wonder why the revelation plans changed?]

...well I really should finish the point I was making as it was very ironic given the make up of the final squad.   Although Luke McGrath also did well in his cameo, I actually thought Kieran Marmion might have pipped Carty to man of the match!!!  Hopefully you appreciate my honesty as I could easily have altered that opinion to suit the squad announcement!

Right - I should probably leave this article where I have it as anything else will just be half formed thoughts.  For now, congrats to Ireland for the win and to the 31 who made the plane. Onwards and upwards to the Aviva next weekend.  JLP
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Later this week on Harpin On Rugby...

Tuesday - Guest posts from KeegoCiarán Duffy
Wednesday - Podcast (featuring interview with Big Joe Shep)
Friday - Ireland v Wales preview (video), Live event at DTwo Bar & Nightclub
Sunday - a selection of online comments after Ireland v Wales
Monday - Ireland v Wales match writeup

Every morning 8:30am - Front 5 quotes & links

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