Monday, March 21, 2022

IRELAND-26 SCOTLAND-5

ANOTHER STEP TO 2023


Johnny Sexton recently gave us some closure on his career and given he is our skipper who is set to hang up his boots after the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, it means we now have a sense where this impressive squad is headed.

This has really helped me focus on the team itself rather than all the negative opinions expressed throughout the Irish ruggersphere. Truth be told the provincial BS has really been getting me down of late - of course it has always been there, but to see it when the team is actually playing well can really make you want to switch off social media altogether.

But running a site as I do, I guess that's not really an option, so now we know Johnny's plans, the opinions of those who keep knocking him don't really matter - if he's fit, he'll be starting for Ireland right the way up to the end of our campaign.

And it's that very end which has me changing my way of thinking...previously I had been obsessing about winning a quarterfinal when thinking of how we do in a World Cup, as if that itself would be an achievement. But then I look at this current crop of players and the results they have been able to get since rugby returned to some sense of post-COVID normality.

We can hardly expect Andy, Johnny & co to go to a World Cup with a view to just reaching the final four, can we? When asked for their objectives in France, the answer can only be one thing - "We want to win the World Cup". And that's the line. Sorry if you think that's stating the obvious, but it's an important distinction that I only made once Johnny's contract was announced.

I'm also sorry for the long ramble leading up to harping on what happened in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, but for me it's important to put it all in proper context. Obviously I'm delighted with a bonus point win, obviously I'm even more delighted with a Triple Crown, but more than anything else my question is - what have we learned about this squad since November?

And for me the answer is that while last Autumn we showed we can play with a new style and make it work, over the past seven weeks the lesson was that even when we're not firing on all cylinders, we can make it work.

Remember - this was the year of a French squad which itself will go down in history as one that achieved the Grand Slam courtesy of some of the greatest players this competition has ever seen. Yet while the final table shows them to have won by a margin of four match points, we have to remember that they got an extra three for winning said Slam.

When it comes to points earned in individual matches, Ireland only fell short by just the one point. ONE. And that's while not hitting the top of our game over the 400 minutes. So if this team can reach those heights, who are we to bet against them learning enough to move on and go even higher.

Why not say we're going to New Zealand not just to maybe win once, but to actually win the series. Why not say we're going into next year's Six Nations not just to maybe retain our Triple Crown, but to actually win another Grand Slam. And why not say we're going to France in 2023 not just to maybe win one knockout game, but to actually send off one of our greatest ever players by giving him the sport's greatest trophy to lift.

So as I'm rewatching this match and writing it up, that's a sense of where my head is at.

0-20

After all the hype during the week about Ireland's trophy ambitions, you could hardly expect Gregor Townsend's men to do anything but come to Dublin with a determination not to just make up the numbers, and they definitely started the match the brighter.

Breaks from Darcy Graham after the kickoff and later Pierre Schoeman got them into our 22 more than once in that opening spell, but our defense was ready for them both times, and we were also able to give a demonstration of our own confidence when Jamison Gibson-Park fired a pinpoint miss pass across his own try line to help escape (albeit with the safety net of a scrum advantage).

Yet it was Scotland's confidence that was their own undoing after they chose not to go for a kickable penalty only to fluff their lines at the lineout in our 22. And it wasn't long until we had our first real chase to break ourselves as JGP had a snipe which got him deep into their half only he had no support although he might have done if Johnny Gray's clever little grab of JVDF's jersey had been spotted.

Now our tails were up and having owned the territory stats early on, the Scots were struggling to clear their lines and we kept pressing until a series of penalties led to Dan Sheehan throwing a 5m lineout to Iain Henderson before getting on the end of a maul going forward before peeling off and falling over the line to get us on our way.

In many ways this first quarter set the tone for the match as a whole - Scotland doing well to press us only to make a mistake at the crucial moment while we make the most of an opportunity down the other end, albeit eventually.

20-HT

The pattern continued as a Scottish attack was thwarted by a knockon yet when Ireland got down the other end our pressure was relentless and with Dan Sheehan continuing to impress with strong carries and accurate darts, we got more phases on the line until Cian Healy was the second Irish front rower to get it down. At 14-0 and the game not half an hour old, it really did look like the bonus point would be easily reached despite the slowish start.

Scotland then went to the air for the next couple of attacks only the accuracy wasnt there so after forcing a turnover at midfield they put together an impressive string of about a dozen phases before their own front row got in on the scoring. Pierre Schoeman's actions after being tackled needed a couple of looks but the TMO couldn't make Wayne change his mind and the try (rightly IMO) stood.

A Tadhg Furlong jackle won a penalty shortly after the kickoff and now it was our turn to give up an easy-ish three points to no avail as Grant Gilchrist made some mischief at the lineout to earn a scrum which more or less killed the half.

40-60

I don't get frustrated by Wayne Barnes as often as most Irish fans do but in this match where the breakdowns were so competitive he seemed to have problems throughout finding that line between a carrier's knee being on the ground and a tackler legally stripping the ball free, and while this affected both sides at times, it played a part in our not scoring early in the second half.

Then around the 47th minute we had arguably the game's two biggest talking points in the space of one series and from what I've seen in the Twitterverse my take on both of them very much goes against popular opinion.

Schoeman on Henderson

Pierre Schoeman is no stranger to shipping penalties and cards and on first look there is no question he makes contact with Iain Henderson's head in this challenge. But for this decision by Barnes, my opinion seemed to move almost exactly in sync with his.

For context we have to remember the Ewels v Ryan incident from seven days before. The issue, as I kept saying throughout the week, was that the tackles need to be lower. This is why we have these laws and guidelines as they are - they were called "zero tolerance" when they came out.

But it is also possible for the ball carrier to be responsible for a blow to the head, which is a big reason why Duhan van der Merwe wasn't playing at the Aviva on Saturday. So this action by Schoeman was definitely worth a look, and Barnes' starting point definitely seemed to be one where it could be a red card.

However...what was that we were saying about the tackler getting low? As much as I admire Iain Henderson, in this case I think he was in a bad tackle position. And when the pass to Schoeman was high, while considering the height difference between the players, him gathering the ball means his arms were going to be raised.

My point here is that if his arms aren't where they are, when the two players come together, Henderson could easily find himself in the same boat as Ewels. Does the prop extend his elbow a bit as the contact is made implying force? Definitely. For me, the mitigation brings it down from red into yellow/penalty only territory, but Barnes saw it as a natural action and explained his case well. Still, absolutely not a red card for me.

Did Hogg make a pig's ear of the finish?

Play went on after the collision, and with a bit of luck out wide, Hogg was able to kick the ball forward and gather with seemingly a clear shot to the line, and Sam Johnson in support. But he did not get the try, choosing against the pass inside and instead getting clobbered into touch by Hugo Keenan, who had yet another outing to deserve the "Mr Dependable" tag I gave him in my preview.

The consensus seems to be that the Scots captain butchered an easy score by not passing to Johnson. However I reckon we should instead be giving the credit to Keenan, not only for making the final tackle, but also for the slight hesitation in his run which is what Hogg sees when eyeing up the offload (pic). With JGP also covering, I can definitely see the logic in going for the corner instead, except that his opposite number was still able to snuff that out.

From there we escaped our 22, proceeding to set up camp down the other end and while the Scottish resistance was decent as they pinched a lineout here and forced a knock on there, we eventually wore them down as a series of phases softened them up for Josh van der Flier to steam ahead from five metres out and nobody was going to stop him.

The conversion made it 21-5 going into the final quarter so while the match was clearly won at this point, our job as laid out before kickoff was by no means done.

60-FT

Scoring one try in each quarter will always earn you a bonus point under this system, the only concern for Ireland in this match is that the road to each one, especially the fourth, was long and winding.

We had been hoping for a similar performance from our bench to that we got at Twickenham, but what we got instead was a strong defensive showing from the Scots replacements as their defence showed no drop in standards despite all the changes.

And to Scotland's immense credit they didn't shy away from keeping the tempo going when they had the ball, giving up kickable three points for good reason at this stage only for our own defending to be strong as well and we were able to withstand a mini purple patch which kept them out as the clock ticked well into the 70s.

There was one point as the Scots had phases on our line when I was wondering if we'd be better off letting them score to leave us time to get back into their territory for the fourth try but they ignored Barnes' calls to avoid "pre-latching" and eventually got pinged allowing us to escape.

Eventually it was a tackle in the air by Darcy Graham on Peter O'Mahony (also up for card debate) that got us back into their territory and a subsequent deliberate knock on by Ben White (which did get a card) meaning it was now or never for us with just three minutes left.

So Rob Herring's dart is easily taken by Doris and the hooker nestles it under his arm at the back of the maul which follows. Robbie Henshaw would seem to be the obvious choice for crash ball but instead Conor Murray handed it off to James Lowe who found himself wrapped up by Watson, Kinghorn and Russell.

However Lowe had two backs and a forward of his own in support in the shape of Messrs Henshaw, Sexton and Herring and he was able to rip himself free from the tussle and offload it back to Murray who himself crashed through three Scottish tacklers to get it over the line, prompting the understandable celebrations you see from the Irish skipper in the lead photo.

The conversion was missed but it hardly mattered the job was done and the final margin was one that was forecasted by many. Well by many, I mean of course myself! I don't often get it right so I'll be sure to point it out when I do!

HARPIN POINTS

Dan Sheehan got Player of the Match and deservedly so. He was so strong in virtually every facet of the game I wonder if Rónan Kelleher returning to fitness gets him the 2 jersey for province or country right now.

But over the five matches the bulk of the praise has to go towards Jamison Gibson-Park. He is without doubt the Duracell battery that powers our new attacking machine. Even when a grubber or two doesn't go the way it should you have to admire his mindset and it is clearly one to which the rest of the side responds.

And with Ireland blessed with a host of talent in reserve, with Murray probably at the front of the queue after a pair of impressive cameos, JGP always knows he can go full throttle for 60 minutes per match and know he'll be leaving things in good hands.

A very honourable mention has to go to Josh van der Flier. Yes, yes, I know, his carrying, yaddya yaddya, but rather than flog that dead horse of a joke I'll instead point out just what an all-round superstar he has become in recent seasons. Let's just say he doesn't need the scrum cap colour to be noticed!!!

I won't apologise for those three paragraphs being about Leinster players, not because this is a Leinster site, rather because they are actually Ireland players. If others want to get their enjoyment from this level of rugby by taking provincial head counts, then that's their choice. I just want to watch a team playing like they believe they can win a World Cup.

We all know what happened in Paris later that same evening but while I tend to rank the awarding of silverware for a Triple Crown only slightly higher than that of the "Centernary Quiach", it was still a time for celebration after the full time whistle because it really was an impressive series by Ireland where we showed a vast improvement on previous campaigns so congrats to Andy, Johnny and all involved.

I mean when you think about it, many Irish observers seemed to forget the Grand Slam in 2018 because of what happened in Japan, coming to the conclusion that we "peaked too early" so going by that logic, a really strong second place finish at the same stage before the 2023 RWC has to be a good thing.

Also for those who are worried about building for the future, I agree this is a concern but it's always about finding a balance between that and using the players we have that have the experience at top level, and I reckon we're doing a decent job of that at the moment.

Of course there will always be quality players who miss out but that's only ever a good thing for the team and only 23 can ever be selected at a time. Plus when it comes to the future going by the current crop of Under 20s I reckon we're looking ok for all that comes after RWC2023!!!

WHAT'S NEXT...

...for Ireland? A trip to New Zealand in July and I've already harped on what I want us to achieve down there. But in the meantime all the players need to focus on a different kind of what's next...

...for Leinster? As of today it's fine for us all to get our provincial goggles back on as there are a host of interpros to come in the near future, not least of which of course is Leinster's two-legged date with Connacht, but also the URC prequel which is in Galway next Saturday evening.

Obviously we'll be turning our attention back to that here at Harpin Manor so as always stay tuned for all our regular features throughout the week. JLP


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