For our latest #ThrowbackThursday we look at Ireland playing England at the Aviva in 2015 which was interesting for many reasons, like it was also before a World Cup, and it was Joe Schmidt v Stu Lancaster. It may not have been decisive for the five-win distinction that Ireland are playing for this coming weekend, but as regular readers/listeners will know we’re avoiding that phrase here at Harpin Manor right now.
TINKER, TAILOR, #SHOULDERTOSHOULDER, SCHMIDT
Stuart Lancaster did mention his side’s lack of discipline in his post-match press conference alright. And in true rugby fashion, the English press were happy to pick up that ball and run with it as the primary reason for this result.
But to be fair to the English coach, that wasn’t the only reason he gave, and I certainly don’t believe it went anywhere near explaining just how this match went.
Preparation was always going to be the prevailing theme of this contest. It’s not so much that talent was irrelevant, more that talent was only going to get you so far in the approach for either side. And right from the very kick off, we could see what England’s plan was…territory over possession.
And to be honest, who can blame them? Since these teams last met, Ireland had won every time they took to the field and while there were always little strategy tweaks made to suit the opposition, there were greater themes to be noted like power plays, lineout/mauls and yes, even that blight on the game called the choke tackle (which didn’t help Ireland this weekend but ironically DID help Wales at one stage in their match).
So for the English to come to Dublin with a plan in place to put the ball as deep as they could in Irish territory in order to try and force a mistake makes perfect sense.
But here’s the thing…particularly in those key opening exchanges, we barely made a significant mistake, and my contention is that if the English hadn’t conceded the kickable penalties that had us 6-0 up with 95% possession after 7 minutes, the margin could very easily have been 14 or even more.
And while we’re at it, what say we look at themes other than discipline – like experience. George Ford certainly has the qualities to not only make that white 10 jumper his own but also to have success with it, but on this day, he was made look like a schoolboy by his opposite number.
In other areas where England had talent, like on the wing with Anthony Watson, they had some bright spots which were outdone but some not so bright ones like getting caught offside after a knockon, possibly one of the most frustrating things you can be pinged for. But much like Ford, that’s not to say his coaching staff should lose all faith in him for the future based on this display – imagine if Ireland had given up on Simon Zebo?
Speaking of Zebo, it was his strong tackle on Watson that led to the lone Irish try. And oh, what a try. We’ve all seen it a gagillion times even just a couple of days later, but I could easily watch it that many times again. The first thing to stand out for me is the reaction of Conor Murray to the penalty advantage.
The scrum half has enough to process going to the base of every ruck as it is without having a play like this one ready to roll out should the ref stick his arm out. But when Craig Joubert called the high tackle on Kearney, Murray had no hesitation in looking sideways to give the call. Right on cue, not only did Henshaw get himself where he needed to be to get the perfectly-weighted kick, but also his centre partner Jared Payne was running in support just in case Robbie felt knocking it to a team-mate was a better option than catching it.
Of course before we get to the try itself we mustn’t ignore the build-up – Zebo’s tackle was strong but wouldn’t have led to much if he didn’t have the support of his forwards to swarm over Watson and win the ball back, and in the half a dozen or so phases that followed, all 15 in green jerseys were involved in finding soft shoulders, clearing out, and even when someone the calibre of Robshaw found a way through to disrupt, tidying up before Kearney drew the penalty advantage and Murray put up his kick.
But once up in the air it was all about Robbie Henshaw. Alex Goode wasn’t a guaranteed starter for England but he was certainly one of their best, most consistent performers on the day so the Connacht star’s task was to compete with both him and the dead ball line and then both catch the ball AND touch it down. Would have been a tough ask for someone with 100 test caps, but he made it look like he had all those and then some.
And it wasn’t just the try which earned Henshaw the man of the match award. The statman credited him with 6 missed tackles, but he still led the side with 14 made, and some of the ones he missed wouldn’t have even been attempted by most test 12s – he was a man on a mission and one of the keys to Ireland’s success so far in this year’s Six Nations is his partnership with Payne which is looking more and more like an inspired selection with each passing game.
Then we have another key partnership, at halfback. I have already highlighted Murray’s excellent role in things but someone needs to link up the Munster man with the Connacht and Ulster centres and what can I say about the job Mr J Sexton is doing that pretty much every commentator in the game hasn’t already said? When you show disappointment in an outhalf for pulling just one placekick wide and putting one garryowen a tad too deep into the opposition 22 then you know you have someone special pulling your strings.
My personal favourite Sexton moment in the match was his crossfield kick to Tommy Bowe in the opening minutes. You’d think in rugby union that any plan which involves putting boot to ball constituted a risk but every aspect of that kick shows the intense technical detail that went into the planning of the move. Sure – it needed skill and accuracy, but at this level, that is demanded anyway and Goode was left with absolutely no choice but to run the ball dead after his catch given the trajectory it took and the way Bowe challenged for it.
I could go on in my praise for Irish performances…Rory at hooker was living up to his surname, Jordi Murphy almost had you asking “Jamie who?” and Tommy O’Donnell pretty much did the same re: Seanie after he was forced from the action. Our locks were as devilish as ever around the park with Paulie the consummate leader and Toner stealing lineouts one minute and playing stand-in scrum half the next.
But once again in my writeup for this great Irish team, I cannot ignore the glue that is keeping them together.
Of course even now you’ll get curmudgeons like George Hook saying this isn’t the type of rugby they would ideally like to see. But when you stop watching through goggles from the amateur days and appreciate the realities of the modern game you can most definitely see the beauty in how Joe Schmidt has his squad operating.
You can turn to someone watching with you and say : “See this lineout? Watch how two phases later we’ll be ten metres further up the park with England on the back foot” and that’s what will actually happen.
You can admire all the hard work put into banishing all our demons in this fixture from the scrum for good not just by technique, but also by tailoring our game to keep them to a minimum.
And most importantly, you can look at all three of our performances in this year’s tournament and appreciate that what we have seen so far isn’t necessarily what we’ll see in future contests so the upcoming opposition are bound to be kept on their toes as they prepare.
Hopefully when you use that lens you will see Joe Schmidt’s Ireland for what it is – a constantly evolving project which has its players growing more and more accustomed to success with every second spent at Carton House.
Sure, with a makeshift team towards the end on Sunday we let the visitors come back at us. And that is always a possibility for the final 20-odd minutes of any test match but if I had a plan which gave me a 16-point cushion when I get to that stage, whatever personnel I had on the park I’d fancy my chances against any team on the planet, at any venue and in any competition.
Now for all the gushing, it is worth noting that of those 10 wins in a row we keep hearing about, 6 of them were at the Aviva and our next two are away so cliché or no, there’s much rugby to be played yet before this Six Nations is done. But can you think of anyone else you’d want in charge?
#TrustJoe #ShoulderToShoulder #COYBIG JLP