November wrap up, the old old enemy and the future

And so it with a tear in my eye that I say goodbye to the November internationals of 2017. My favourite part of the sporting year is over again. Last year we have the All Blacks initiating gang war on the turf of Lansdowne road to close it off, this year we had a professional and stubborn Argentina side in our closing match.

Going into the game and after team selection I thought Ireland would run over the visitors. I thought that the mixture of experience around the team with the new caps would prove too much for a weary, well-travelled Argentina side who would want to go home and sleep for a while.

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Ireland, the 6 Nations, success and failure

I have come to a realisation as we say good bye to the 6 Nations championship of 2017. That realisation is, I cannot emotionally handle being an Ireland rugby supporter.

It feels better to have said that out loud.

Going into the final match against England, there was no title at steak. There was only pride. The points spread ranged from 3 all the way up to certain pundits trolling on twitter saying there was 7 tries in between the teams. The nation had begun to slowly turn their back on the coach, demanding changes and thinking that they knew more about coaching than a multiple tournament winning King Joe.

I was in a taxi headed towards the designated meeting point for the top notch pundits of Ireland, and I was listening to the end of the Wales v France match. It was a hilarious calamity involving our favourite unfavourite referee Wayne Barnes. He was incapable of giving a penalty try after multiple infractions from the Welsh that the match went longer than the last FA cup final. France winning took some more pressure off Ireland. The 4th seeding for the world cup was cemented with a Welsh defeat.

Immediately I thought this was a positive for Ireland. My coach always said, be wary of the fighter with nothing to lose, and Ireland went in with nothing to lose. Upon arriving at the venue the news that Jamie Heaslip was out with an injury from the warm up meant that O’Mahony started. This was a call I was hoping for, but for Sean O’Brien and not iron man. But needs must. It was a big day for POM along with Kieran Marmion. The player who was kept on the side-lines the previous week while Murray had no feeling in his left arm.

The team started like they hadn’t been fed in a month. They tore into the English with such ferocity that it made the team chasing the world record look like an under 10’s side. It was amazing to see, this was what we wanted from minute 1 of the competition. The far bigger England team where sent back time and time again. They tried gamely to get back into the game early, but they just couldn’t. Their game plan was easily read; aim at J10, aim at KM9 and that would shut down the entire team. This is not a bad game plan, but they underestimated both players. J10 was everywhere, it looked like there where 6 people wearing the 10 jersey at some points. It got to the stage where he was hitting rucks needlessly and you could see the English back row where lining him up for an over the top clean out. When this didn’t work, some late hits came in. It was targeting, fair targeting for the most part. But it got to the point where captain Best had to have a word with the referee, so some of it was over the line.

The aggression was there and it was backed up with technique and belief against a much larger, albeit one dimensional English side.

It took some time, but J10 put Ireland 3 up with a penalty as a result of pressure.  Quickly replied to by Farrell at 18 minutes. The addition of POM meant that Ireland had more options in the lineout which helped with Captain Best and his darts. He didn’t miss one all day, Ireland didn’t lose one all day and there were a few steals too. The lineout set up the only try of the game. The baby faced assassin Iain Henderson scored after a perfectly executed move. It was a throw to the middle won by O’Mahony and that Irish maul trucked over for the try. A strong confident start.

Ireland then began the strangulation rugby. England where contained, looked amateur and Ireland played some creative rugby. Was this because there was nothing at steak or was it because of new orders mixed with new personnel? England where delighted to be at half time only 7 points behind and for the duration of the game they never looked like scoring a try. The teams could still be playing today and England would be depending on the Adidas Predators (other boots are available) of Owen Farrell to win them the game. Ireland where impotent against Wales, this week, England where downright droopy!

The Irish scrum was concrete all day and gave a massive platform for the backs. Ringrose had a huge game and was able to make breaks and tackles that he had no right to make.

Again, England where holding on. They had nothing to offer past being big. We expected a patch where England would come back; they did nothing past a couple of turnovers in the second half. They elected to take the points over trusting their set piece which was a sure sign that they were not up for the scrap on this day.

Ireland played like a team that are world beaters, England played like a team scared of history.

The frustration is that this is not a regular thing from Ireland. This was a performance that no team in the world would want to face, if this performance was up against the All Blacks, I dare say that there would be new world champions. To a man the team played to near peak performance. It really was a fantastic way to finish the tournament……..

But….

Was it a successful tournament? Did we get what we deserve? Well in sport you usually get what you deserve. Based on 40 minutes against Scotland and 80 minutes against Wales Ireland got what they deserved. It is all about what happens next. It is all about the newly capped players (20+ in total since Joe took over) taking forward steps in the big jersey to challenge for the big competitions.

A lot of people are saying it was a failure, they are wrong. A lot of people say that Heaslip is finished, they are also wrong.

What I say is that there is no longer such a thing as a first team for Ireland. There will be days where a certain selection is warranted based on the competition (and of course fitness). So when someone is dropped, they are not dropped. This will bring confidence to the entire panel, everyone will be in with a shout of making the match day squad and this will be hugely beneficial going forward into the world cup and 6 Nations campaigns where injuries could take their toll.

The 6 Nations 2017 is over, and Ireland got what they deserved. But more importantly, no one above them in the world rankings wants to play them.

 

As usual @nkeegan on twitter and @kdubdd on instagram

Ireland v Wales, England and Rugby Psychology

Week 4 of the 6 Nations in the books and a feeling of calm numbness washes over me.

This won’t be an in-depth blog about game plans, spacing and field position. There are people far more qualified for the jargon. This will be about psychology. The psychology of the match on Saturday was fantastic to watch for the neutral, not so much if you had a green jersey on.

Coming in, Ireland where on a high. A strong win against France while not getting out of 3rd gear left a lot in the tank, but replenished the reserves of confidence and belief. Wales on the other hand, collapsed like me after 12 Guinness (other stouts are available). They were up at halftime, well within themselves and looked to put Scotland to the sword. But it didn’t happen. The big players didn’t perform; Scotland consistently out fought and out worked them and deserved the victory. So both teams came in at opposite ends of the happiness scale.

Ireland started well, much like they finished against the French. Pressure led to an early penalty from Sexton and they looked to be off to the races. Then a knock to J10 and a cold Paddy Jackson came on, resulting in an error (he didn’t get a chance to warm up) and George North scored a try. The same George North who looked frightened of a tackle the week previous. He was back to his frightening JCB best. This lifted the Welsh. North is usually their talisman. If he is playing well, they will all play well and he put a marker down early. Especially when the game plan from Ireland was to kick the ball at him (not to him) at every available opportunity. The Welsh weathered an early storm from Ireland and came back with 5 points. Jackson kicked another penalty which came from more pressure while Sexton was still under HIA. At 28 minutes Sexton was back and the momentum shifted again towards the green side. But 10 minutes later he was binned for not rolling away. It was a tough call, while technically correct. I would suggest that If you had 3 17 stone men on top of you, you would struggle to get out from under them, but rules are rules.

Wales took advantage and scored unanswered points while Sexton was in the bin and Conor Murray suffered a stinger. He was kept on the field while being in obvious discomfort. His left arm was useless. He should have been taken off but it appeared that the coach didn’t trust Marmion to play without senior guidance.

The players saw this. The players felt this and they sank. Subconsciously everything that they had said in the media evaporated. The talk of squad depth disappeared. Marmion was well capable of playing, but instead they chose to keep Murray on the pitch. He was brave beyond measure. Hitting rucks with 1 arm, but he took 2 massive hits while being unable to defend himself. Player safety etc. etc.

Half time arrives and a reset was needed, the team knew it, the coaching staff knew it and every Ireland supporter knew it. Sexton had a few minutes left to serve in the bin so Murray was left on, with a stinger!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinger_(medicine)    (please read this before continuing!)

Again, the players saw this. It sent a message. Even with a stinger, Marmion was left on the side-lines. Mentally that plays with a team. They know how good the backup is, he has performed consistently well for Connacht but he was left on the side-lines until Murray made the call, maybe it was the medical staff, but it was left too late. Wales where bossing the game.

The reset occurred with the substitutes. Healy, O’Mahony and Henderson came on over the space of 15 minutes and changed the game. Ireland came back. And should have gone in front if not for a midfielder charging into a maul. Again, not his fault, he was just trying to help, but rules are rules.

This dented Ireland’s confidence. They looked to believe that if they exerted pressure wales would crack. Wales where cracking but Ireland came away with nothing. The psychological shift yo-yo’d in that second half. If Ireland score 1 try from a malfunctioning lineout in the welsh 5 metre zone and the Rory best maul results in a try the entire game changes. The Irish lineout was easier to read than the Da Vinci code, just with an even more annoying ending. Bad throws? Not enough options or a mixture of the two.

The plays didn’t come off and a slight miscue from J10 while trying to exit the Ireland redzone resulted in a Jamie Roberts try that hurts the scoreboard.

Going back a couple of paragraphs. If Ireland scores 2 tries then the narrative is completely different. Ireland win, while still not playing well and you all think it is winning ugly and a positive thing. The likes of the great Tony Ward would not be asking for the changes he is asking for, but sport being sport, sometimes it goes against you. If you look at most player ratings in various sporting media, players didn’t play badly. The stats would back this up. But stats don’t win games, people do.

We should have strangled that Welsh team, the players on both teams felt that at the opening whistle. Wales where able to psychologically manage the game much better, take advantage of the mental state of the opposition and grew in confidence because of it and deserved the win.

Wales played well, Ireland played at 50%. That is what happened.

As for the backlash, a lot of people are turning into football pundits with the rash decisions and turning on the coach. Firstly, every single rugby playing team on this planet from under 8s to golden oldies would sell their grandmother to have Joe as a coach. He is brilliant. Anyone talking about Joe out is a fan and not a supporter. The best thing about a fan is that the IRFU get their money. The worst part is the post-match conversation.

The second being that Jamie Heaslip should be dropped for O’Mahony. While I agree O’Mahony should start, it should not be at the expense of one of the team’s top performers. Look at the work load. It is only Stander who compares when it comes to tackles, yards etc. This is reactionary nonsense to sell papers. Do not fall for the hype.

With that out of the way, we welcome the old enemy to Dublin. I would dare say they have never been as tough as they are now. It will be an absolute dog fight on Saturday. McFadden has been drafted in to replace Tommy Bowe. Again people losing their mind over this. But he has big match experience, knows the calls etc. and has performed at the highest level. Gilroy has not. I would have brought Adam Byrne in, which goes against my previous 40 words, but he is worthy of a shot. He is big enough, bold enough and brave enough to battle England.

This will be a dogfight. I would start O’Mahony in place of O’Brien, Payne instead of Kearney and Scannell instead of Best. Massive calls to make, not made with any disrespect and very easy from the couch, but if Ireland want to be in with a shot of winning, last weekend’s mistakes cannot happen again.

I will make a bet with everyone reading this. Paddy Jackson scores the final kick for an Ireland win by 3.

As usual, @nkeegan and @kdubdd on instagram for discussion.