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.

Ireland V Wales, Pride and Aggression

Now it gets exciting, 2 games left in the championship, an away trip to Cardiff and then the old enemy comes to Dublin.

As all people should, let’s take this 1 game at a time.

Ireland arrives in Cardiff with confidence. After a slow start and a loss against a decent Scotland team, Ireland have turned the screw from minute 41 in that match all the way through to the end of the French match. The thing I took from the last match against France was the ability to strangle the opposition. Not a huge amount of flashy rugby, but anytime a hole was spotted, Ireland went through it. It was the rugby equivalent of a Boa constrictor slowly killing a deer. I am not sure if I have my species right there, but you get my point. It was another facet to the game plan for Ireland which will serve well against Wales.

Wales on the other hand are having a rollercoaster championship.  Starting with a fairly easy win against Italy, after being held for a long time. They then should have beaten England, that was their massive moment of the year so far. They were massive and stepped up hugely against a bully England team. The English where rattled for the first time in a year at that stage and it was all down to Wales being more up for the fight. It was great to see, but I think losing that match in the last minutes has affected the Welsh. They then moved to Edinburgh to take on a semi-resurgent Scottish side. Wales started well, started strong and looked to be rolling forward to a win. And then they collapsed quicker than me trying to run more than 3 miles. It looked as if they felt it was over and they could just coast through for the win. The plays they set up didn’t come off, they missed many tackles and Scotland remained Scotland. They deserved their win and put another nail into Wales.

So will Wales rebound? Will that Welsh pride make an appearance? They are looking around the changing room at players who haven’t performed; players who backed each other have not been doing that. The plays they want to use during a game aren’t coming off. Pride won’t win this game.

Look, let’s be honest. Ireland should strangle this team. If you compare the teams, the 2nd row and back row are as close to even as can be. The front row is all Ireland. The midfield would be leaning towards Ireland based on form, this is a game made for Ringrose to work off the bulldozing Henshaw. The back 3 would cancel each other out too, but Wales do not have a Zebo. Someone who can make a bit of magic. I know George North is playing, but he is off the pace and a few games away from being his best. And remember, he is coming off numerous concussions. It must be getting to him at this stage, he knows he is susceptible.

The Irish bench is slightly stronger too. Most of the players in the match day squad have seen game time. At 55 minutes there is a chance we can see Healy, O’Mahony and Henderson make appearances, which is the aggression Ireland will need to close out the game.

I think confidence is what wins this game. A big, aggressive and violent start from Ireland and the Welsh adrenaline will disappear, the crowd will turn on their team and the Irish anaconda (my ironic stripper name) will strangle the Welsh to a 7 point win. It will not be easy, but the green machine will roll home with a Welsh scalp and a parking space for the chariot.

@nkeegan on twitter and @kdubdd on instagram for more

Jackson or Sexton, Sexton or Jackson and other 6 Nations thoughts

In the words of the flight of the conchords, it’s business time!

The 6 Nations moves into the important minutes this weekend as week 3 of the competition kicks off. Scotland take on Wales and Ireland welcome the French to the Aviva and on Sunday England take on a battered and already beaten Italy.

For Ireland the call is Sexton or Jackson, Jackson or Sexton. Start with Jackson and bring on Sexton or start with Sexton and (assuming he gets injured) bring on Jackson. Some pundits think that when fit, Sexton starts and some think that Jackson has proven himself in the time sexton has been injured. Some also say that if Carbery didn’t get injured he would be the understudy for Sexton.

But let’s look at the 1 and 2 in the 10 shirt as it stands.

Jackson has recovered from being treated horribly by Declan Kidney way back in 2013. Kidney was feeling the pressure and threw Jackson into the team as a starter. It was maybe 12 months too early for Jackson and it put him back a couple of years in terms of his development. But now he has worked himself back into being a proper team general, a boss and has the confidence to be the playmaker. It was hard for him against Scotland. He had very little to work with due to an underperforming pack. The second half showed him come into the game more and scored a classy try where he backed himself. It was great to see. The team celebrating with him showed that they wanted it for him too, which is important.

Now onto the great Jonathan Sexton. The best 10 of the modern era? Maybe I cannot say that until the career is finished, but I haven’t quite put my blue jersey away yet. Sexton is more than a player. He has the ability to drag his team forward, to out think the opposition and to put himself on the line for his team and the jersey. The last one is a quality that every other player you will see on the pitch on Saturday will have so let’s look at the other two.  Sexton has on many occasions brought his team through a game. Going back to the Northampton Heineken cup final and it was Sexton who started the comeback and who took the half time team talk. He has been doing this as a regular thing since his big match debut against Munster in Croke Park. What I am saying is that there is a history there of Sexton bringing a team back from the brink.

Now on to out thinking the opposition. Both Sexton and Jackson have been good in this area over the last few seasons. Sexton and Leinster maybe depended on the loop pass and following the ball for too long, but that play has been updated and will be seen on Saturday if he starts.

So for me, the only real difference here is a history of performing at the top level in every jersey. Sexton leads that by quite a bit. Ulster are like Clermont, in that they are a semi-final team. Any time they are in a position to make final, they have struggled. Is that because Jackson was unable to out think the opposition? Or to bring his team forward into the game? Sexton has done this numerous times. Jackson has not had the opportunity to prove he has done this; yes he has played well in the green jersey, but not in a massive game. Carbery was called in as backup for Sexton in November which shows you where he is in the coach’s thoughts. Madigan has been out of inclusion since 2013, but that is another story for another blog.

Using history, Sexton is a nose ahead. Using form is impossible as Sexton hasn’t played. He has been injured. Whilst on the pitch he has been a different class to every other player he faces. He has shown an ability to hit the ground running after injury better than nearly any player ever injured in any sport. Jackson however has been there, week in week out and performing. He is one of the only shining lights this season for Ulster and he has been consistent and a game manager in green. So in form, Jackson is a nose ahead.

We are at a 1-1 so far.

So now. What about the team? If you were in the squad and you had developed a playing connection and a trust in your 10 over time and they switched it for the king of the jersey, how would you feel? Would you welcome the tried and trusted back into the fold? Or would you want to have the backup built up to the same level? Does it not put a bad message out to the team where form isn’t important, it is all about who did it best over a certain time period?

For me, I would start Jackson. I would put the message out there that no player is bigger than the jersey. I would trust the player who has played the position. I may be the only person on the island saying this but I think the team is more important than the player. For the French game, I think it sends a fantastic message if he starts Jackson. It is not out of charity; Jackson deserves the start through his play over the last while.

Imagine Sexton coming on with Healy and O’Mahony at 50 minutes to close out the game and win it?

Joe will pick Sexton; Ireland will win by a score and will march to Cardiff with a whiff of a championship in their nostrils.

Until next time, @nkeegan on twitter and @kdubdd on the instagram