Monday, March 14, 2022

ENGLAND-15 IRELAND-32

THE FULL EIGHTY


Game of two halves, right? One half 3 minutes, the other, 77.

Usually my plan for these writeups is to lead with a pivotal moment from the match and describe it in detail before going back to the kickoff and harping through the eighty minutes from there. This match lets me go straight through from start to finish.

For those who wondered what this match might look like 15 v 15, I'll try to make these opening paragraphs as detailed as possible because I reckon we learned a lot more than you might think about how it could have played out.

When Johnny Sexton took the kickoff, all the expectation, all the predictions, all the Eddie Jones soundbytes faded into the background and it was clear from the moment the ball left his boot what we wanted to do.

It went long into the England 22 where it was caught by Sam Simmonds who then had to run not just into our chasers, but also towards his team-mates who had assembled at the 22 to receive a more standard kickoff with a lifted jumper. This meant they had to clear their lines and scrum half Randall's kick wasn't the best as it fell well beyond his own chasers into the grateful arms of Caelan Doris, just inside his own half.

Now, as probably was the plan, we had set ourselves up to click into what has to be known as "Farrellball" since it is so far removed from the way we played before he took over. Rather than running into contact, it is clear from Doris' body language that he was only ever going to offload and he sends a straightforward pass to his captain who quickly ships it on to Bundee Aki.

You'd think the Connacht centre might be the one to go barrelling up the middle but no, nothing on his mind but a pass to Garry Ringrose, who was allowed a step or two to get into the English half yet still fired a pass to James Lowe and just like that we had already beaten their narrow defence and our winger had some Twickenham turf to work his magic in.

He's able to run almost as far as the 22 until he runs into Marcus Smith (who makes no effort to get low I might add) and then gets hauled down by Tom Curry. Arriving to the breakdown right on queue are Ringrose and Keenan as protectors of the ball (make a note of those names for a later clearout) and Jamison Gibson-Park as provider.

Back the other way it goes...Sexton, Furlong, Aki, then another breakdown in a more central area, then JGP, Sexton and then James Ryan who knows the trademark "wraparound" is on and offloads back to his captain. (Obvs this is where THE incident happened but let's put a pin in that for now.)

So Sexton gets swallowed up by England tacklers but again his fellow halfback is there to keep the tempo going and he finds Doris who quickly moves it on to Ringrose. The centre's footballing instincts spot half a gap ahead of him so he runs towards it although still his intention was only to offload out of the tackle and when it does come, he tries to send it to Furlong.

It was all good. All very well planned, and to this point, very well executed. And the reason it had to be well executed is that we knew we were up against a physical defence that was going to do everything they could to disrupt our intentions, so it wasn't that surprising when Ringrose's pass went straight to Joe Marchant instead.

Now we had England trying to settle on the ball for a few phases until the play got close to where James Ryan was receiving treatment and thus the first half of the match was over.

On the challenge...after what happened against Italy two weeks ago, I really don't want to repeat myself too much but in this area I must, although first I have to address the narrative.

All this talk about what happened after the card is fine, and I said myself how well England played. But we do have to be careful not to stray too far down that road where we try to make out they were victims battling against some kind of injustice.

Ewels' body position going into the tackle was both awful and dangerous. It ended James Ryan's match before it had a chance to begin, and every contact to the head comes with the possibility of long-term implications. It deserved a red card. And when your team gets one, you deserve to be without a player no matter how long is left.

I know all matches between these two come packed with emotion but if it helps, I said exactly the same about Peter O'Mahony's "chicken wing" against Wales last season, which some could say had an even bigger effect on our overall tournament. The sanctions are not there to victimize, They are there to influence behaviour. Get. Those. Tackles. Lower.

Right...that's enough on that it has been discussed ad nauseum since Saturday. Before I harp on what happened afterwards, being the nerd that I am I actually put a stopwatch on the real time elapsed between Mathieu Reynal halting play and Marcus Smith restarting after Johnny Sexton kicked the penalty to put us into a 3-0 lead.

It was 4 minutes and 51 seconds. That's how much time we had to wrap our heads around having an extra man for the rest of the match, and remember, our captain was busy taking the penalty for much of that time. Of course England had the same amount to regroup, what I'm saying here is that spell was when a lot of the preparation needed to be done for what came next and I reckon the home side handled it better.

3-20

It's very easy for us to sit back and talk about what we should have done with the extra man, but for a side which has so much confidence in how they play, I really don't see the sense in trying too hard to change our ways. And let's be honest, playing against 14 Englishmen in their own backyard was always going to be a different proposition to playing against 13 Italians in Dublin.

And here's the thing...Farrellball got us our first try within a couple of minutes, so why wouldn't we stay with it. England showed their own intentions with a quick tap penalty running towards our 22 but once we got it back we clicked into gear, created the space a little differently using Sheehan and van der Flier this time in the wide channel, but once Lowe had it there was no stopping him. 8-0, 7m gone, the sky is the limit.

But on the next occasion we had an overlap, Lowe's pass to Ringrose was a tad behind him so he had to reach back and knocked it on, meaning there was a scrum at midfield. On the English put in, we won a penalty.

Yes, you read that right. First scrum of the match and we absolutely mullered them - as the clock ticked past 10 minutes it really looked like nothing was going to right for England on the day as Donal Lenihan pointed out that this front row of theirs "really aren't very good scrummagers".

From the lineout we were right back on their line thanks to more quick ball and a powerful run from Dan Sheehan, although while it ended up with Doris going over, it got called back for a knock on.

(Sidebar - "clothesline" by Tadhg Furlong here? Come on. No way. His body language is only about receiving the ball, it was just unfortunate that Slade ran into his arm but if anything can be called a "rugby collision" it's that.)

Now another English scrum in a much more dangerous situation, and we get a similar shove on but now it starts to mysteriously wheel around and now all of sudden it's a penalty. You can tell by my sarcasm that I don't agree and I know I'm biased but given how that first scrum went, let's just say the subsequent rulings don't make a lot of sense to me and leave it at that.

That penalty coming when at where it did was a massive boost to the England side's confidence, even though they lost another forward minutes later as Curry was forced off. Another boost was the next scrum penalty at midfield which Smith was able to turn into his side's first three points.

20-HT

If we really must talk about when Ireland should have looked at our attacking approach, it was probably around the 20th minute when we got pinged at yet another scrum, free kick this time for early engagement, meaning that it was likely that we were going to be on the wrong side of the ref from now on, and no matter how innovative and attractive our offloading game might be, the risk of a knockon leading to more sanctions was great.

England's first real attack of note got them into our 22 leading to another penalty although having confidence is one thing, but surely they should have taken the points. When they went for the corner, our maul defence was outstanding and we were able to clear.

But more scrum penalties, as well as needless technical ones from senior players who should know better, kept giving England opportunities, and although Smith missed one he made the next which put the score at a worrying 6-8.

We badly needed the next points and what's more, we got them. A high tackle by Itoje at midfield put us in the 22 and we got the ball moving quickly again to earn a penalty advantage until Healy knocked on in the tackle. From here JGP saw the quick tap was on, moved it on to Keenan who's line suggested he telepathically knew what was on, and he scored. Just what the doctor ordered before the break, or so we thought.

(Another sidebar - some saying the ref shouldn't have allowed the quick tap for an injury to Kyle Sinckler? There's a misleading clip doing the rounds that stops JUST before the prop clearly starts to get to his feet. Not saying Reynal couldn't have stopped, but it was a marginal call at best in the moment - Sinckler wasn't hauled ashore until afterwards)

We really should have seen the lead to the break but when Jack Nowell gathered the restart, England jumped on the front foot again until they earned a penalty in front of the posts making score at the end of a frantic half 9-15, which they would have been more than happy with.
40-60

The pace of the game continued from the restart and both sides escaped early sieges on their own 22. We had more opportunities but just as we had been doing in the first minute, we kept going one offload too many and the knockons continued leading to England penalties.

For their part the home side had made a change to their own approach, a sensible one given the personnel change as they started going to the air and although Hugo Keenan is more than capable under these situations, eventually his team mates were unable to stop the chasers from jackling allowing Smith the chance to get the first score of the half.

The Twickenham crowd then thought the same had happened again when Reynal put his arm out after another Keenan catch, and although it was only for a scrum this time, the way this match was going it amounted to the same and sure enough the set piece led to another penalty.

For all my head scratching over these calls, to be fair I do have to ask this question...if our front row was indeed causing this many repeated infringements without learning their lesson, why was this the umpteenth penalty without tempting a card from the referee's pocket? We'll never know, but we should consider ourselves lucky the game remained 14 v 15 for as long as it did.

Anyway the net result of this latest call was that Smith converted so on the scoreboard at least it was 15 v 15 going into the final quarter.

60-FT

Our failure to protect Keenan' catches continued as he was bundled into touch shortly after the restart leading to another massive cheer from the Twickenham crowd.

A name I haven't mentioned yet is Andrew Conway, and while he wasn't getting many chances to show his forte of chasing down his side's box kicks, he did manage two 5022s in quick succession with the second giving us an attacking lineout 5m from the English line, presenting us with an opportunity we really really had to take.

By this stage we had started to go to our bench and from the lineout we went a more traditional route with carries around the English line, which eventually tempted a penalty advantage before what could have been the most satisfying moment of the afternoon, namely the sound of the home crowd thinking Freddie Steward was in for a length of the pitch interception try when in fact he was called back for our penalty instead.

This no-no was Itoje grabbing JGP's arm as he tried to lift the ball; again, not sure why this wasn't considered a yellow card, but still the net result was that Sexton was able to put us back into the lead at a time where we absolutely had to get something from this visit to the 22.

Finally Smith gave us a restart we were able to deal with but on a day when I was often letting out screams of frustrations after the knockons and the scrum penalties, my voice finally gave out when Conway's boot failed him as he sent a kick out on the full giving England a lineout at our 22. Thankfully Tadhg Beirne saved the day by rising to pilfer George's dart.

I have to admit that when Keenan's best catch of the day at midfield led to Doris breaking through into their 22 only for his offload to Murray to go to ground, I was starting to think we'd be lucky to hold on to our three point lead.

There were only ten minutes left when England had a goal line drop out, and the next series of phases is what pretty much decided the match. After the 12th we eventually stretched their stubborn defence, and with a man down meant they had to be dead on their feet at this stage as a gap eventually appeared when a sweeping move got it to Conway.

With three defenders covering he was never going to make it to the line so what he needed was support clearing out and by God did he get it, not from his forwards, rather again it was Ringrose and Keenan clearing out with Conor Murray this time arriving to tee it up for Jack Conan to get over and there it was, the vital two-score cushion.

But with just over 6 minutes still left, victory wasn't enough as that fourth try was still to be earned and as Sexton ran away from his conversion you could see he was determined to get it. And that determination spread to the rest of the team as Robbie Henshaw, who was the best out of a load of impressive cameos off our bench, earned a penalty at midfield putting us back in the 22 shortly after the restart.

Herring clicked with Doris at the lineout and we were able to prevent Itoje from doing his maul mischief as we inched closer to the line. Murray eventually sent to Lowe on crash ball and on the next phase it was another sub Finlay Bealham dragging it over for that all important bonus point.

Just to recap - not 5 minutes of play before this moment, every Irish fan was begging for us to hold on to a 3-point lead. Now it was 17 and we could almost start wondering what all the fuss was about!

In the end it was fitting that a crooked throw by England in our 22 led to an Irish scrum which we won cleanly allowing Murray to put an end to proceedings by thumping the ball into the stand.

HARPIN' POINTS

It was an emotional 80 minutes for absolutely everybody involved including the fans, but the most important thing to remember is that you have to be able to play in the first minute and the last and it's the result that counts the most.

Sure, there are plenty of ways you can raise question marks over some of Ireland's decisions on the day (although I'm not 100% if Eddie O'Sullivan was the most qualified to be first to raise them on the national broadcaster) but to dwell too much on your own shortcomings does a disservice to your opposition and it has to be said that England did really well under the circumstances.

Also, I clearly remember a time when we'd be almost patting ourselves on the back as Irish fans had things gone the other way for us. Thankfully the days of the "moral victories" are well behind us now and it's good to see what it's like from the other side.

Jamison Gibson-Park was Player of the Match and it's easy to see why. The energy he brings is the battery on which our attack runs. Possibly this is more an award earned from general play over the four matches, where we lead the competition with 20 tries and his ability to find that final ball has been responsible for many of them.

As Irish fans I really think we need to dwell less on what should have happened and more on what this result means for our overall plans. During the week our skipper finally mapped out the remainder of his great career, meaning he is totally on board to get this team that RWC holy grail.

If you haven't seen evidence from Ireland in this tournament that we're capable of doing that as things stand, well, I guess you haven't been paying attention.

WHAT'S NEXT

Silverware is always nice, and picking up two shields at Twickenham (Millennium and Raeburn) is even nicer. Obviously I wouldn't sneeze at a Triple Crown after we play Scotland next Saturday, but the Championship is the one we want and if England can regroup and play with the same passion in Paris (well, a disciplined passion, right?) you just never know what is possible.

I mean it's not like France and England haven't found a way to bring us the Championship in the final match before (albeit while giving us heart failure along the way). But FWIW I'm going to stay positive and believe we're still in the hunt just like I did after we fell short in Paris. Hopefully you're with me? JLP


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