My first goal for this writeup is to make sure it contains exactly 2020 words, to mark the crappy year that’s in it. My second is to make it as constructive as possible without shying away from criticism that might seem too harsh. I have a feeling my chances of success are better with the first one.
There is one definite positive I can say about this Irish performance - it looked a lot better on the second watch. Perhaps it was the gradual replacement of my high expectations with bitter disappointment throughout the 80 minutes that made me miss the details on the night, but I can now see that it wasn’t like we went to Paris without a plan, we were just unable to execute the one we had.
In order to help me focus on my key takeaways from the match I have come up with a set of headings. Please don’t read too much into the order in which I present them because I believe all are important.
SEXTON AS CAPTAIN
He was never one to hide his emotions throughout his career, and we all knew what he was thinking as he was taken off in the 68th minute. In all fairness, who could blame him. We were “only” 8 points down, we were the last to score at the time, and if anyone could bring us back late in Paris it was him.
But there’s an important distinction between 2018 which goes way beyond COVID and the presence of fans. I was never wild about him taking over as captain, partly because of my generic belief that out-halves bear enough responsibility as it is, but also because I wasn’t sure it was a role that suited him.
So maybe in passing judgement on him here I’m coming from a biased place, but I still think there’s enough evidence to suggest that it has been an experiment that just didn’t work for Ireland. That’s not to say the team’s problems are all down to him, and while a long term replacement for him at 10 will eventually need to be found I still don’t think that time is now, but...we need to find a way to keep him in the leadership group while still passing on the armband. And while I’m at it, I may as well name my recipient of choice, which would be James Ryan.
But back to Johnny - it would be easy to point to that decision not to go for the three points at the end of the first half as my “Exhibit A” for why the captaincy may not be for him. Truth is though, I can actually see why he made that choice. I can also see why he let Conor Murray go for the distance kick right at the start of the match.
There is definitely a case to be made for both decisions, yet where I have a problem is that I can’t actually put the two together in the same match. If we’re going for the corner, then Murray shouldn’t have gone for the posts. If we’re taking our threes, then we should have done so to end the half. Still - this isn’t even what got me thinking about writing under this particular heading today.
It was a moment just before he got hauled ashore, on 68 minutes, when he dropped a pass from Jamison Gibson-Park. Now to be fair, pretty much everyone in green played as though their hands were smothered in sanitiser for the entire second half, but this drop seemed different somehow, like it showed how the extra burden of captaincy took that little edge off his regular game. Right, that’s enough on this point as I’ve many more to get to.
STOCKDALE AS FULLBACK
I say these aren’t in any particular order but I was careful not to put this one first. No matter what I say on this topic my blue goggles are going to show but I’ll press on regardless.
Against Italy I didn’t think he had a great game, yet I still came to the conclusion that he should be given a chance here. He’s a quality player that has a lot to offer and can definitely jump start our attack running from deep, which indeed he did on more than one occasion on Saturday.
But when it comes to other things you expect from a 15, we have to ask some serious questions. Again, he wasn’t the only one to knock on, but his mistakes happened at the worst possible moments and the fact is that we already have several different options available so it’s probably about time we went for them.
Here’s where the goggle accusations come in. While I’d have no problem with elevating Shane Daly to the role or indeed moving over Andrew Conway, I’m thinking Hugo Keenan’s play for the past couple of weeks shows he’s a safer pair of hands and, well, once James Lowe qualifies he should definitely get a shot and not only that, much like Jacob he’s got a booming left boot. So for now, those two with Conway would be my back three of choice.
FRANCE AS WORTHY WINNERS
I can’t harp too long on what we did wrong without also mentioning our opposition’s positives. Broken play situations were always going to be ones in which they would thrive, especially with such classic French flair on show at halfback. Actually in Dupont’s case I thought he had a poor first half by his standards, but when given half a chance he and Ntamack were always going to make something happen.
But the key to their success was their Shaun Edwards style defence. Got in our face enough to force us into alternatives which didn’t really suit the players we had. The little chips over the top were just too long and the stabs through to touch in their 22 were always tidied well. On top of that they were disrupting our lineouts for fun. I still think we could have gotten the result we needed had we performed, but we didn’t and got rightly punished.
BARNES AS REF
Again I was careful not to make this my first heading but I don’t agree with the notion that the officials must never be questioned. And again, I’m probably giving in to my goggles here (green ones this time) but I did have some concerns over the calls.
How different would the match have been had that early penalty try been awarded? I’m sorry but I couldn’t understand how you could separate the yellow card from the PT, especially in that case. Barnes took so many looks at the replays it was like he wanted to talk himself out of awarding the try. And while the Doris grab later on was a more straightforward call, if you applied the same logic about what could have happened without it, I can see a path to a similar conclusion.
Then there was the penalty call at the end of the first half. Both Sexton and Murray were incensed but at the time I thought this was down to the high stakes involved in the decision to go for the try. On second look, however, while overall it was a decent goal line stand from the French, I do think the jackler went off his feet before settling on the ball.
One last niggly thing I noticed was the location of the scrum after Dupont kicked it long. It’s the sort of thing you’d never bring up on its own but worth a mention in a piece like this to illustrate some things outside Ireland’s control that went against us.
ROBBIE’S TRY AS AWESOME
I didn’t approach these headings with an overall theme in mind but I think I can see one emerging. Most of Ireland’s bad outcomes on the day came from what seemed at the time like the best of intentions. Like going into the Italy match, while Henshaw and Ringrose had loads of game time together in the centre, you couldn’t argue with Bundee Aki almost literally screaming his way into the starting lineup and keeping his place for Paris.
But after one of many of our lineouts got a bit sloppy and we looked like the French blitz would swarm over us yet again, when we needed someone to turn on the gas and give us a fighting chance to come away with a result, he was just the guy we needed. That was an excellent score born from power and determination.
THE SIX NATIONS FINAL TABLE AS ACCURATE
I didn’t want to mention it on twitter at the time but as the French were stretching their lead the Scots were starting to look like favourites to pip us to third after their win in Llanelli, but all told I reckon the final positions do a decent job in reflecting the performances of the six nations this year, especially given nobody managed the Grand Slam.
FARRELL AS COACH
Let’s be clear here - none of us are thinking about passing any real judgement on Andy yet are we??? I did my best to avoid the Twitter machine after the full time whistle as I knew that what with Halloween and a full moon there would be more of the Irish begdruder brigade than usual, and the following morning I heard that was the case.
But not only was this his first Six Nations campaign, it was his first anything in the big chair and what’s more he had to pretty much start from scratch twice as the tournament does not afford you any warmups. Perhaps our approach regressed a little bit on Saturday and I’ll be keen to see his charges put in a decent performance away from Dublin soon (next chance will be at Twickenham though!), but overall we seem to be moving in the right direction especially when you consider some of the talent which is yet to be added or returned to the squad.
AUTUMN NATIONS CUP AS OPPORTUNITY
Obviously these four matches need to be seen as a chance to bring in some new players, but does that mean we need to field the Wolfhounds throughout? I really don’t think so. It may be mostly a token trophy but if we can extend the Welsh losing streak in our opener I want us to go to Twickenham with an intention of putting up a decent fight. So I wouldn’t be surprised if more “marquee” names are involved than we might think, at least over the first couple of weeks. I’m actually quite looking forward to it, and who knows it might lead to the silverware being offered every November window once the southern hemisphere nations can travel again.
THIS HEADING AS MY FINAL ONE
This certainly has not been one of my conventional writeups, that’s for sure. I didn’t really fancy going through the match minute by minute or even score by score and I have a feeling you didn’t either. It’s more about what we take from it going forward, and even if they don’t make the same tweaks as I've mentioned, I can’t see the glass as anything but half full for Ireland right now.
I know I keep saying it has been a crazy crazy year, but we can never lose sight of this fact. And win or lose, I can assure you I have no complaints about having all this top flight rugby to keep us going while the craziness continues. You have to give full credit to all the unions, provinces, clubs & regions involved in keeping the show going especially when things are a lot less than ideal for them financially.
Thankfully my rugby weekend is not yet over - I am grateful for Monday night rugby to help me forget Paris and also kill time before the US presidential election, something I have also been covering online in recent months with the help of Keego. Hopefully the results of both will provide silver linings to the dark cloud 2020 has been so far!!! JLP