Monday, December 07, 2020

IRELAND-31 SCOTLAND-16

THE THIRD PLACE MINUTES


INTRO


We have reached the end of Andy Farrell’s first calendar year in charge of the Irish team, and few can argue it has been unusual for him with all the enforced stopping and starting.  


To add to that there’s the fact that with 2021 being a Lions year (hopefully), the chances are he won’t get to field his best available squad against a southern hemisphere opponent until next November, which is hardly the ideal way to spend the first two years of a World Cup cycle, let alone a rookie head coach’s tenure.


So, what have we learned in 2020?  Well, we can beat Scotland, Wales, Italy and Georgia at home, but we can beat neither England nor France away from Dublin.  We’re better than one lot, yet not as good as the other.  Two tournaments, two third place finishes.  That’s where we are.


I don’t often begin a writeup with such general statements; I prefer to focus on the match in question yet I reckon this one needs them for context.  In my preview I felt our performance would determine whether or not Farrell’s glass was half full or half empty going forward, as the Scots appeared to be the ones closest to our level in the tournament.  


And after a shaky half hour that suggested the answer was going to be empty, we managed to regroup and tip the balance back in the other direction with a convincing three-score win that could have been more had we been a shade more accurate with the ball or if Scotland’s high penalty count in our 22 tempted a second card from Matt Carley’s pocket.  And we really ramped things up in that crucial period either side of half time, although considering what was at stake they could hardly be called “championship minutes”.


Of course mistakes are never good, but sometimes I do find comfort in them.  We made a good few in this match, yet if we ignore the type of rugby we played without them, then we’re not offering proper analysis.  Test rugby is a level where you have to attempt the more challenging options and demand the highest levels of accuracy, especially if you want to have any hope of moving up the ladder.


So since we are more about the general state of Farrell’s Ireland right now, rather than go through the match play by play I’ll try to evaluate each of the players’ contributions instead.


JACOB STOCKDALE


Eyebrows were continuously raised at his selection at full back, although many were willing to give him the chance to grow into the role.  Unfortunately I feel exactly the same about him coming out of this tournament as I did going into it. 


He’s an excellent option as a runner from deep and can get good mileage with his boot and that it’s his left one is definitely a bonus, yet when it comes to more technical full back duties, well, meh.


Now when it comes to defence, the first thing I did after Scotland’s try was go on Twitter to make sure nobody was blaming Jacob for Duhan van der Merwe getting through.  IMO his positioning was based on there being a pillar at the ruck.  Thankfully there was little use of that lazy narrative to be found.


I’m still not entirely sure he’s our best option for a nailed on 15, but I also get the impression that Farrell is keen to stick with him so maybe a few European outings in the jersey between now and the 2021 Six Nations will get him up to speed.


HUGO KEENAN


One of two rookies to put nary a foot wrong and make themselves almost undroppable despite a rake of proven talent ready to take their place.  Seems to have a really good rugby brain and often makes contributions above and beyond what we’re looking for.  The Scots tested him a good few times out wide and he pretty much always passed with flying colours.


My only complaint about him playing in all of Ireland’s matches in this cycle is that I hope it doesn’t prevent him from going another couple of weeks to help Leinster start their European campaign! 


BUNDEE AKI


Hasn’t shone as brightly in this series as he had in previous matches and I’m sure few will argue that the 13 jersey is being kept warm for Garry Ringrose when he returns.  Still he definitely has a key role to play in the squad as we will always need depth in our midfield and he did have some good crash ball runs on the day.


ROBBIE HENSHAW


I have a feeling my blue goggles are going to to show a lot in this article but hopefully I can do a decent job of backing up my harping with evidence.  Going into these matches I was surprised that there was actual debate over the identity of Ireland’s ideal 12/13 combo.  I’m hoping this display might help put that to bed.  


I mean it’s not as though we’re questioning what kind of centres we want.  The discussion around alternatives to Henshaw and Ringrose always involves other power options like McCloskey and Farrell.  Perhaps if we wanted a more creative 12 we could talk about someone like Frawley or maybe even moving Sexton over to help the likes of Ben Healy cut their teeth at 10.


But Robbie should have put all doubters down with this performance.  Reminded me of his display in Chicago to be honest.  Always popped up with the big play exactly when we needed one.


KEITH EARLS


I reckoned Andrew Conway was hard done by with his exclusion as he had done little wrong, yet I reckoned Earlsie was Farrell’s preferred 11 and was always going to return once over his injury.  And that decision was certainly validated.  Took both tries well especially the second and was a strong contender for Player of the Match.


JOHNNY SEXTON


Not his best day from the tee, although he saved his best for last with a sweet conversion of the third try from out wide.


Overall his involvement leading our attack was at its usual high standard, particularly in that key spell when we took control of the match either side of the break.  I still have my doubts over the whole captaincy thing but then again his achievements and seniority dictate that as long as he wants the role he should definitely have it.


With all that’s weird about this season I can hardly complain about the Champions Cup kicking off just a week after a test window, but the sight of Johnny limping off after 63 minutes certainly wasn’t good for Leinster fans.


CONOR MURRAY


After one match where we were all “hey look he doesn’t box kick any more!”; well, they’re back, and some of them are still going a bit longer than we’d like.  That said, I thought he did well overall at 9 and kept the tempo going when we needed it to, possibly a sign that he recognises there’s a host of options ready to take over if required.


CIAN HEALY


Got pinged at an early scrum but took his try well, albeit with a little help from his latching friends.  A good guy to have on the park among the “experienced” group.  Funny how the guy about which I have least to say is in the position I actually played in way back when!


ROB HERRING


No Irish hooker has shone in this series.  And that’s not just a function of lineouts, although one early one did go horribly wrong in this match when it was overthrown.


Unfortunately Rob’s contribution to this match will be remembered first and foremost for his desertion of the pillar role in the breakdown which led to the lone Scottish try.  Some say he should have made the tackle and that is true but for me it was more about his positioning.  The only team mate that could possibly have looked like an alternative pillar in that ruck was Quinn Roux and he was in the act of falling.


He’s still very much in the mix for selection among Kelleher, Heffernan and others like Cronin and Tracy as well - we’ll have to see how they all fare in Europe but I reckon it’s important we find a presumptive starting hooker soon.


ANDREW PORTER


Speaking of presumptive starters, I’m not sure the term can be used for Tadhg Furlong anymore.  Of all the positions where we had issues in this series, the critical one of tight head was one where we assumed we’d struggled yet Porter did much to take up the slack, including an almost unheard of 80 minute shift and his CV has turnovers on it as well as locking down the scrum.  Again I have mixed feelings based on what Leo Cullen & co will be needing from him in the coming weeks.


IAIN HENDERSON


Have to feel for Ulster fans if his early withdrawal rules him out of Europe; our northern cousins have had dreadful luck on the injury front.  Iain was definitely back to his best and is clearly established as a leader in the squad.  We had a rake of brilliant options in the lineout and he certainly knows how to call them.  Hopefully he’ll be back to action sooner rather than later.


JAMES RYAN


Solid performer throughout, possibly helped by not having captain’s duties though I’d be keen for him to wear a good few more armbands in the next 12 months to help him grow into the role.  Yet another Leinster star I’m hoping was only withdrawn early as a precaution.


CJ STANDER


A quiet day by his lofty standards, although this wasn’t a match really for recognised poachers.  He got stuck in where he was needed but oddly enough if I had to pick one of the starting back rowers on the pitch to make way for someone from the host of talent in reserve, it would be CJ.  Watch him win 4 Player of the Match gongs out of 4 for Munster in Europe between now and February to prove me wrong!!!


PETER O’MAHONY


I remember an episode of the Eggchasers Podcast from a couple of years ago where they posed a challenge that had you imagine different rugby teams that were entirely made of just one player and work out which would be the best.  Well, I reckon a team of 15 Peter O’Mahony’s would definitely be “there or thereabouts” at the top of the list, and not just based on Saturday’s outing either.


Loads are saying “he’s not a 7” and this is true.  But the lines between the traditional roles of 6, 7 and 8 are getting more blurry with each passing season, and what’s more the Scots in this same match went with Ritchie instead of Watson so it’s not like we’re unique.  


And besides, POM may not be a classic openside but what you lose from that you certainly gain in virtually every other aspect of his game.  Excellent at the lineout no matter which team provides the dart, and along with CJ he proved himself quite handy in the wider channels, seemingly keen to reprise his famous wingers role for Ireland.  


Some chose to point out his poor grubber through in the opening minutes, but as far as I’m concerned you can’t mention that without also referencing his amazing technique in his final pass for the Earls try - it might have looked forward though Peter’s hands suggested otherwise.  


Then there was his own try in the corner which was denied by a stud grazing a blade of white grass on the touchline.  It wasn’t even the finish that impressed me, more his attitude in pleading his case with the officials afterwards.  I reckon every team needs that kind of passion on the park.


CAELAN DORIS


Obviously the second of the rookies I mentioned in Keenan’s section earlier.  Pipped Earls & POM to man of the match thanks to a seemingly endless series of gainline-busting runs that were key in keeping us on the front foot throughout.  I reckon if those two stay fit they will keep their places going into the 2021 Six Nations due to their consistency and they can clearly identify as Andy’s in this Ireland set up.


Again, I’m hoping he has come out of this series with enough in the tank to stick on the blue jersey over the next couple of weeks.


DAVE HEFFERNAN


Mentioned him already under Herring, definitely in the mix for selection and possibly was unfortunate not to get more minutes in this series.


ERIC O’SULLIVAN


Definitely one of the better debuts off a bench I’ve seen in a while.  Won a penalty at the first scrum and had some decent carries in the closing stages.   There are loose heads ahead of him in the pecking order for sure but he definitely deserves another shot at this level soon.


JOHN RYAN, JAMISON GIBSON-PARK, CHRIS FARRELL


Only played a few minutes


QUINN ROUX


Prolonged shift with Henderson’s injury and has done well overall for Ireland in this window.  We had no qualms going to him in the lineouts and apparently he’s a strong engine in the scrum.  I’m hoping the accusations of gouging Scotland hooker Fraser Brown are untrue and from what we can see on the replay it seems he just got his jaw.


JOSH VAN DER FLIER


Two brief stints for Josh, but like I said it didn’t appear to be a fixture for the more traditional 7.  All going well we’ll see a lot more of him wearing green in the new year.


ROSS BYRNE


Pretty sure even the most diehard Leinster fan will admit Ross has probably fallen behind Billy Burns when it comes to replacement 10s, though that’s more due to the latter’s playing well as opposed to him playing poorly.  Much like starting hooker, replacement out half is a position in which we badly need some clarity, and there are several options like Healy and Harry yet to be tried at test level, not to mention proven ones like Madigan.


SCOTLAND


Although they had the lead after half an hour, I expected more from them on the day.  While Irish observers make a lot of our own mistakes, I reckon this match turned on a Scottish overthrown dart on 29 minutes and we were able to seize the initiative from there.  Gregor Townsend’s men definitely had some positives and once van der Walt gets more test minutes under his belt together with the return of Russell and Hastings, the creativity levels will improve and they do seem to be on an upward curve.


OFFICIALS


There seemed to be a theme from Scottish tweets that referee Matthew Carley somehow favoured Ireland on the day - I might be more inclined to suggest that if anything the visitors were lucky they only had one sent to the naughty step.  I thought Carley was good at communicating his decisions throughout which is probably the most we can ask for given we’re never going to agree with every call.


SUMMARY


Simply put, with all the external circumstances, the judgement on Andy’s tenure needs to be reserved but still should be tending towards the positive for now.  We’ll have a better idea of what direction he’s taking us this time next year and I hope the majority of fans will be willing to afford him the space to continue his work in progress, because there has been clear evidence of it working, even in the matches we lost.


As for the Autumn Nations Cup itself, there was a hint of “damp squibness” about it overall, even in the sudden death final, but that could be down to Six Nations familiarity.  Maybe a shot in the arm of southern hemisphere nations could be what it needs to inoculate it from further complacency?  I’d definitely be on for the cup being up for grabs again next season if there’s an expanded field.


For now it’s time to break out the blue jersey and turn my attention to working out how this year’s Champions Cup is going to pan out.  Probably have to understand the format before I get to choosing quarterfinalists though!  JLP


Note - at time of posting Leinster issued a mixed bag of injury updates to answer my concerns throughout the article.


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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019