Monday, February 24, 2020

ENGLAND-24 IRELAND-12



I never did really understand all the anger directed at Bono.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not at all a fan of him personality-wise, but when it comes to the thing he does that's the reason I know him, namely the song-writing and performing and stuff, I've always been a fan going way back to the pre-Jurassic era when U2 first rose to fame.

And even long before his involvement with the Irish rugby team during the week, I was baffled by the levels of hatred displayed by a group I call the Blatantly Begrudging Bono-Bashing Bandwagon.  Of course they're entitled to their opinion, but then again I'm also entitled to mine and I think it has always been way over the top, even when he has been at his most, well, "preachy".

So would you mind very much if I harped on that for this article instead of the match in question?  Please?  I'll try not to use too many song-related puns in the process, although I will follow that by saying there might be one or two.

No?  OK, fair enough.  It was worth a shot.  And I suppose given that I went to the trouble of watching this horrendous 80 minutes a second time I should make the effort to get my thoughts out there in writing.  Sigh.

But although it was a disappointing Sunday afternoon for Irish fans, much like the Bono-bashing there were the expected levels of over-reaction in all the usual online places, taking us from the conditional optimism following wins over Scotland and Wales directly back to the dismal defeatism following New Zealand.

Again, I do appreciate the leaning towards Team Glass Half Empty.  That wasn't just a RWC quarterfinal loss, it was YET ANOTHER RWC quarterfinal loss.  And on Sunday it wasn't just that we lost badly to England, it was the third time the space of a year we lost badly to England. 

But while it's hard to leave aside prejudices when forming opinions I know, I'd like to see more at least try.

Just over a week previously, Leinster hosted the Cheetahs in dreadful conditions at the RDS.  We took a whopping 36-0 lead, yet our guests steadied themselves in the second half and while they never looked like taking anything concrete from the match, they at least went on to dominate the scrums and got a couple of scores, and in the end, got a large degree of credit from Leinster fans (whom I presume also follow Ireland).

So where were those same levels of nuance after we went 14-0 down to then go on and win the next 55 minutes of the match 12-10???  Because I'm telling you, if this were a site dedicated to things from the English side of things, I wouldn't be entirely happy at all; for all their domination they clearly left a try bonus point out on that pitch and should be asking themselves why.

The bottom line is that we were outplayed.  Nobody can be in any dispute of that.  England had a plan that was better than ours, but more importantly they were accurate while we weren't, and even more importantly than that, they showed a willingness to push the Laws of the Game to their very limits while we took an age to even start attempting to match them.  Add all those together and you're always fighting a losing battle.

When it comes to game plan and accuracy, the irony of England going to the high ball early was not lost, since that is precisely what we did on the same ground two years ago.  And like them back then, we had no answer.  It was like we took a few seconds to react to the kicks because this was something we didn't expect, and as we hesitated, the likes of Elliott Daly and Johnny May were on the other end of them.

Now for all the flak Conor Murray has rightly been getting for his display, the fact remains that in the opening exchanges, his exit kicking was superb.  Three in a row found touch around halfway from his own 22.  But the problem was, he had to do it so often because England just kept coming at us, and what's more, those first three were all on the same side of the pitch; when he started doing them towards the left wing, the cracks were starting to show.

And to be fair to him even more, he wasn't the first to crack.  As they kept piling the pressure on us, Jordan Larmour had what should have been an easy mark yet he chose instead to run.  A few phases later, Murray's attempted clearance failed to find touch, being just kept in by May and England were back on the attack and now we move on to the next part of their masterplan.

We're all understandably annoyed by the mistakes by Messrs Sexton & Stockdale that led to the two early tries; sure who wouldn't be.  But I'm also concerned by the fact that England went for that ball behind us in the first place.  

This was clearly the result of painstaking work poring over video footage, because rather than taking on our defence with carries around the try line, they chose instead to make their move when our tackling cordon was 5 or more metres away, getting the ball into an area over the line around the posts.

Again, our reactions were just too slow.  For the first one, we were like "I didn't expect them to do this".  Sexton allowed himself to be distracted by Farrell and couldn't recover to get the job done.  For the second, we were "I can't believe they're doing it again" and we'll never know why Jacob let rugby gods decide the fate of the ball by way of a bounce.  But as they were slow to react, first George Ford and then Elliot Daly were fully clued in to what was going on.  The only negative thing I'd say about England regarding this tactic is that I can't believe they never tried it again.

So there we were, 14 points down.  In between those two scores, we had a bit of a lucky break as another below par Murray box kick forced Maro Itoje to concede a penalty for being offside after a knock on (how ironic he actually got whistled for THAT but more on that later).  Now we had a chance to claw some points back with a lineout in their 22, and from the ensuing maul we had a penalty advantage in our favour, before winning another in a more central location.

I can't quite work out what happened here.  We seemed to ask referee Jaco Peyper about the previous advantage, so presumably we wanted to get back to see if we could get more from another lineout.  But if that was the case, even though the new mark was easier for a shot at the posts, it also afforded a kick back to touch.

Gordon D'Arcy in commentary for ITV was asked about decision making and he pointed out he never had to make those calls at senior level.  I reckon if Johnny Sexton is to succeed with the Irish captaincy he will have to find a way to manage those responsibilities in with all the others.  Perhaps his two identical missed place kicks on the day were result of an injury of some sort, but it's also possible that on top of all he has to think about due to his position, the extra burden might be getting in the way.

So if I was asking "should he have gone to the corner again?" as he was lining up his kick for the posts, I wonder if he was also thinking it, and it's not as though the error that led to Ford's try was long from the memory.   You have to put all of that out of your head in those pressure situations, and also as skipper you have to resist the urge to try and fix every mistake yourself.

It was definitely a bad day at the office for him, and his disappointment showed in his post-match interview, more by something he left out than by what he actually said.  There was a long pause in his answer to Virgin Media's Sinead Kissane.

"There were some things in there that we eh......can't control"

Some call it "dark arts".  Others call it "shithousery".  And it's not like I'm trying to say the Irish were angels on the day.  It's just that to go with their well thought out game plan, England had a little side bet going as well whereby they went that extra mile to get under our skin.  And I bring it up not to complain about them, nor to complain about the ref letting them away with it.  I bring it up because we actually did let it get under our skin.

Maro Itoje was England's man of the match for me.  Courtney Lawes had a good game it's true, probably his best in an England shirt, but I can't help feeling someone else could have done the same role.  Itoje's work around the pitch, however, was so unique and so key to what they were able to get done that I thought his selection was a no brainer.

While the moment with Owen Farrell suddenly remembering how to wrap his arms will live longest in the memory from this contest, Itoje holding down two Irish players at once should win some kind of medal all on its own, especially when those two happen to be big units like James Ryan and CJ Stander.  Sadly, we had no Itoje on our side this day.

Of course the angry reactions of Irish players, Stander in particular, is perfectly understandable.  In an ideal world, you want to rely on the man in the middle to punish those antics, or even if they don't, limit your retaliation to putting more effort into the next play.  But we're human beings and when the way-over-the-top niggles keep happening without sanction, how can he be blamed for taking his own measures?

In the case of the Farrell incident, I can almost understand the righteous indignation from English fans after Stander's blows, but not when it came from the man himself.  He actually pleaded to the ref as if he were pure as the driven snow!!!  

Let's be clear what actually happened...Farrell was off his feet and past the ruck, and thus out of the play, BEFORE he grabbed the Munster number 8.  If anything, he should have seen a yellow card.  And for all the complaints about Jaco Peyper, he was spot on when he told the English skipper : "That is what followed because of what you started."

It's not like Stander wasn't being frustrated in other areas - that all happened right after an attacking situation where we mauled really well into the English 22 before he had a mix up with Murray and the ball never came out, leading to an English scrum, one of many fist-pumping moments for their pack.

Now - here's where I have to push back on all the doom and gloom a little bit.  We were shocking in the first half, of that there is no doubt.  And things still went against us at times in the second half, can't argue there either.  But we did improve, we did change, we did fight back.  That all happened, just way, too late. 

Having kicked off to start the second period, there was a great chase by James Ryan who wasn't leaving that point of contact without Ireland being in possession.  We worked it as far as the 22 where unfortunately Dave Kilcoyne, on early for an injury to Cian Healy, had it ripped from his grasp by Itoje.  But we didn't let up.

There were a couple of scrum penalties against us that could remind us of the Tom Court era, but we actually got the odd nudge ourselves and one call at halfway is what put us in the territory for #grabgate to happen.  Still we didn't let up.

Eventually after a few more penalties against the home side, we went at them from an attacking scrum with good carries from Murray and O'Mahony getting us into position before Robbie Henshaw, definitely one of our best performers on the day along with Ryan and Bundee Aki, getting it over the line with determination and strength.

Sadly Sexton still hadn't found his kicking boots and England managed to return to their higher performance levels from the kickoff.  When May knocked on an attempted catch which fell into the arms of a very offside Manu Tuilagi, for some reason it was deemed a scrum not a penalty and the England pack ran over us at the set piece before working it all the way to our try line.

More penalties followed including one against Kilcoyne for collapsing a maul (which was odd because when Itoje did similar, it was called a sack) and from the ensuing lineout and maul, some forwards sheared off before sub hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie spun at the line to get it down.

Things nearly got worse when Johnny May pinched the ball off John Cooney, who had come on as early as the 55th minute for Murray.  And again, the white-tinted goggles of the Twickenham crowd were crying foul when May was hit late by Henshaw after kicking it ahead to the line.  Now I'm not saying the contact wasn't suspect, but if we are to look at that, we must also consider where May was in relation to the hindmost foot at the ruck in question, plus the fact that he actually knocked it on as he went to gather it.   On a day when we bemoaned the officials for not taking action, I reckon maybe on this occasion they might have been actually better off letting it go.

We had made even more changes by this stage.  Caelan Doris was on to add to his three minutes of test rugby.  Two of our starting back three, namely Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour, were off the park which meant Ross Byrne was on at 10 and Sexton moved over to 12.  This new set up really worked well for us, albeit in a losing cause.

Instead of the crash ball 12 option, we now had a "second five-eighth" in Sexton which meant the ball could be moved wide much quicker and some great combinations kept putting us on the front foot in their 22 as the clock was winding down.  Actually our skipper had switched places with Aki at a scrum in the first half so clearly this is something we had planned and I'd like to see more of it.

Of course our changes didn't all work right away - for every three steps forward we took towards the end, England still managed to knock us back at least two by fair means or foul, like when Cowan-Dickie snagged the ball with one hand while catching Doris in the face with the other.  

But eventually our slow progress together with our not letting up paid off with a try right at the end courtesy of Andrew Porter.  It was little consolation I know, but it sure made the scoreboard look a whole lot better.

As for England, you can always expect a smart comment from Eddie Jones no matter what the result, but his "If it were a cricket match we would've declared at half time" was absolutely ridiculous.  Why would you have done that?  Surely you'd want the bonus point?  Once again they have been held back by their own arrogance and it could very well have already cost them the title.

But going back to our side of the pond, whatever negativity is still coursing through us over this result there can be absolutely no denying that we are still in the hunt for this championship.  Of course it won't be easy with the way France are playing, but with Italy to come (although there's a strong possibility it will be called off due to COVID19 travel ban) at home before we go to Paris, we have every opportunity to put ourselves in contention.

If you insist on writing off Ireland's chances, or indeed Farrell's tenure or Sexton's captaincy after just three matches, two of which were wins, then I don't know what to say other than the rest of us will continue supporting them with or without you.  JLP


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