Monday, February 08, 2021

WALES-21 IRELAND-16

GONE TOO FAR


Our defence had just gone over half an hour keeping the Welsh tryless after the sending off, and we were still in a good place without the ball as Andrew Porter and Iain Henderson combined to force a knockon by Toby Faletau before he could get into our 22.


The scrum was incredibly solid as it had been since we lost a forward - even on Welsh put-ins when we kept a man out, they didn’t seem to go for a shove and on this occasion when Conor Murray provided the feed, we had no problem letting our go-to crash ball guy Robbie Henshaw pack down as a flanker.


Sometimes it was James Lowe used to generate the front foot ball but here Garry Ringrose was called upon and he had no problem barging his way out of the 22.  That would have been fine but he had to go for just that little bit extra…


The offload really wasn’t on anyway, although at test level you do have to push yourself.  But going the extra mile here represented a general mindset that seemed to have sunk into the Irish team.  To me anyway, it looked like we had done so well since the red card we had almost forgotten that we had been a man down all that time.


Or was it that the Welsh had forgotten it too?  Well if that was the case, they suddenly remembered as they gathered the loose ball.  A few phases later Henderson was pinged for not rolling away so they had a penalty advantage under the posts.   I’m pretty certain they’d have been delighted to take the three if it was called back, but Josh Navidi managed what Ringrose couldn’t and made the extra offload work.


From there, it was George North steaming towards a gap between Henderson and Lowe.  He was always going to beat the lock, but Lowe chose to cover his outside man allowing the Lion to sail through and finish.  Suddenly everyone was reminded how the numbers were stacking up. 


Yes, it was a mistake from Ringrose.  But overall he made loads of important contributions to the effort, mostly through charging, wriggling and dancing his way to gainline breaks time after time after time.  And yes, Lowe’s coverage in the broken play was at fault.  But overall he was also a big part of our attacking patterns, not to mention his missile launcher of a left foot which helped our kicking game immensely.


And while we’re talking about Lowe, his response to that much talked about moment right at the end of the match was pretty much as perfect as perfect could be, and would be reasonable for anyone with an ounce of decency.  Standing behind Billy Burns as the kick was being taken, Lowe’s first reaction was to put his hands to his head.  But immediately afterwards, he went towards his team mate to console him.


The overall reaction to this has been way over the top.  And I don’t just mean the online abuse, though of course that has been by far the worst of it.  But I’d also disagree with those who say we shouldn’t talk about it.  How can I not in a match writeup?  I believe it was an error from Burns.  I understand why he’d want to get every inch out of it, but in my humble opinion ensuring the lineout happened was the priority and I wouldn’t have complained if it was as much as 15 metres from the Welsh line.


Does that mean I question his place in the team or any of the other nonsense?  Of course not.  Wasn’t too long ago we were singing his praises for some fine performances, including a well set up try against England no less.  I don’t see why I should hold back my opinions to avoid being lumped in with the idiots who only go on social media to offer abuse.


So for me, the moral of the story is - by all means point out mistakes, only don’t go too far.  And hopefully it’s appreciated that I started this article with an outline of another pivotal error from the day - that was the try which gave the Welsh a belief they should have felt once Peter O’Mahony saw what card Wayne Barnes was holding.


Right, that’s as good excuse as any to start harping on that other massive elephant in the room.  In my preview I said “For me Peter O’Mahony makes the team every time for his experience alone, with everything else he brings to the table a welcome bonus” and I suppose those words look kind of stale now though I stand by them as I remain a big fan of his when he’s wearing green.


But again, it was a grave error and I won’t apologise for calling it that.  In many ways it was a much worse one than Burns’ as it was so early in the match, and let me be absolutely clear about this, it was absolutely a red card. 


In my view, he had no intention of connecting with the head because he thought he was going at Sexton’s back with a view to clearing both him and Francis away from the ball but where he screwed up was in putting his head down.  Sexton fell away just as Pete arrived with his “chicken wing” leaving the Welsh prop’s head exposed.  Reckless equals red every time.  


My thoughts went back to 2010 when Ireland got thumped by the All Blacks in New Plymouth, probably because not only was Jamie Heaslip in the BBC commentary box but also because Wayne Barnes delivered the card both times - although that action was of course a lot more cynical.


Anyway, given we were already 3-0 down and went on to concede the next score as well (sidebar - that was quite an advantage allowed by Barnes for this one I must say), not to mention losing the talismanic James Ryan who seemed to be well up for the occasion, you could say we had ourselves quite the “Snowdon-esque” mountain to climb, although for the rest of the half we treated it like it were a molehill.  


If you missed the first quarter, were it not for the red tick by Ireland’s spot on the score graphic, you’d have no idea we were a man down.  Like I said, we could even afford to dispense with Robbie Henshaw’s carries at times.  We practically set up camp in their half all the way to the break and might even be disappointed to only put 13 points on the board in that time.


One thing I looked for most in my rewatch was the reasons for us losing possession each time.  Sometimes it was that old chestnut of losing an attacking lineout in their 22.  Other times it was well targeted defending by our hosts, like when loose head Wyn Jones, who went on to be Player of the Match, ripped one free after his side were defending for an energy-sapping 19 phases.


But they were also conceding penalties so a couple of Sexton place kicks got us to parity, and straight from the restart, a brilliant exit kick from Conor Murray (another who did both good and bad on the day) put us back in their territory and luckily for us their darts were just as wonky meaning Josh van der Flier was able to crash into the 22.


We needed a bit of brilliance to help unlock the stubborn Welsh defenders and this was provided by Robbie Henshaw, who went on a run against the grain his fellow centre Ringrose would be proud of to beat three Welsh forwards before offloading to van der Flier.  The Man In The Red Scrum Cap went on to bring it to the line before realising in a split second he wasn’t going to get all the way and providing great support was Tadhg Beirne (another who was mostly good but still made the odd costly error) to get it over the line.


I was actually disappointed when Sexton chose to end the half despite our having a penalty at midfield but then again I can guarantee if that were me out there I’d have been delighted with the chance to get a breather!  It really had been a crazy 40 minutes of rugby, though we needed to keep our focus and the next score was always going to be critical.


And unfortunately after the break my “how we lost possession” list was getting longer and longer.  First Sexton hits a high crossfield ball straight into touch.  Then Murray’s own kicking radar started to lose their hang time and accuracy.  Next came the Ringrose offload I mentioned back at the start which led to the North try.


We were generally comfortable with the ball on the front foot but we kept finding different ways of handing the ball back, assuming their forwards weren’t actually taking it, of course.  Even Henshaw, whom I felt pushed Jones for the match gong, made a mistake by coming in from the side to end an 11-phase set, although he was then removed for a HIA.


Eventually a kicking error of a different sort by Conor Murray gave Wayne Pivac’s side the chance to pull ahead.  To be fair to ref Barnes, he had indeed clearly explained to both sides that a lineout won against the head at the 22 would be deemed “taken back” and after a great leap and steal by CJ Stander, Murray ignored the warning conceding a lineout well in our 22.


What followed was the sort of try you always knew this Welsh side had in them even in their darkest of times over the past year, although it took the brilliance of young Rees-Zammit on the far wing to provide the finish.  Much like the first try, there was a penalty advantage pending and I’m sure they’d have gone for 3 points but with Leigh Halfpenny stroking a beautiful conversion from the touchline, this turned out to be seven.


So was it a molehill or a mountain now?  Well we started well from the restart as Stander sent a clear message to Warren Gatland by steamrolling over Toby Faletau to get us back into the swing of advancing the ball up the field but yet again, a silly niggly error, this time by Lowe who bobbled it on the ground, halted our plans.


Unfortunately I have to cite Murray again for making his block to protect his team mate going for a catch way too blatant.  This was in the 62nd minute and I’m wondering if this was a good time to have introduced Jamison Gibson-Park to the equation to mix things up rather than wait until the final ten.


Anyway...the Welsh almost cocked up another lineout but it worked out well as their skipper Alun Wyn Jones barrelled his way deep into our 22 before it seemed to go loose at the breakdown for Tadhg Beirne to pick it up only to be pinged by Barnes for being still in the “tackle zone”???   Well there was no advantage from this penalty so Halfpenny popped it over to make it an actual mountain for us with a two-score lead.


Still the inability to keep the ball moving persisted.  Sexton himself missed a touchfinder from a penalty at one stage, and tried to make amends moments later by bringing it himself to the line only to first get Tipuric’s knee to his head as he fell then his head hitting the ground.  Absolutely no question he should have been removed however annoyed he might have been.


And let’s be fair to Billy Burns - in the next attacking set he took the ball strongly into the 22 and along with JGP's tenacity helped us manage 11 powerful phases that got us all the way to their line before AWJ {mischievously laid in our way/was fiendishly trapped} to concede a penalty.  


What should we have done here?  Normally I wouldn’t be on “Team Take The Three” but in this case I do think it was the correct option.  Although we’d be right to back ourselves to get near their line again before the end, a try can never be guaranteed especially 14v15 and what’s more, the points at least put a bonus point back on the table for us.


Unfortunately, we still couldn’t shake those errors.  Burns needlessly put one out on the full.  Beirne needlessly grabbed his opposing jumper in the air at a lineout.  But it’s also important to note that the Welsh had made few, er, suspect decisions and actions themselves throughout the match and Gareth Davies came very close to providing the worst of them all.


At 78 minutes, the ball got ripped free yet again after a set of our phases and that seemed to be that.  Take your time with the scrum, kick the ball out, everything is done and dusted.  That memo never reached Davies’ desk and instead he chose to give it back to us for one more chance.  Had he not been watching?


31 seconds after the clock went red it looked like the Welsh had pressured us into conceded but a deliberate knock on was called.  Why that wasn’t also considered a yellow card I’m not sure, and in fact there were a few times throughout when one could have been flashed in their direction.


Anyway - with the penalty we got into their half and embarked on a series of 10 more lung-busting phases - they didn’t all go swimmingly but when George North got pinged for not rolling away at 83:39, well, we had that chance and I won’t go over what happened next again.


So to repeat, our disappointment as fans with the anti-climax was understandable, once we didn’t take our expression of it too far.  And going too far was pretty much the theme of the day for us, though I’d be doing it myself if I thought our campaign lay in ruins on the strength of the result.


Our upcoming schedule certainly doesn’t look too promising.  France up next who have left nobody wondering which team has shown up, Scotland have their tails up and as for England, our playing them last gives them plenty of time to right all the wrongs they showed at Twickenham.


But we can’t forget all the positives.  We did extremely well adapting and executing our gameplan to actually win the final three quarters.  If the lads can do that well out on the pitch to recover from adversity, imagine what they can do with time to prepare.  So while we leave the minority of online muppets to get on with their hating, let’s avoid going too far and writing off the boys in green just yet, shall we.  JLP


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