This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as braying bankrupt builders in Cheltenham). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.
Mid-morning, and the England team is out, and it’s greeted with underhand smiles by the Irish – Manu is on the bench and they have an odd-looking backrow – nice! We can take these lot is the bullish feeling around Dublin – someone mentions the army of blindsides we brought to RWC07, and how the English backrow reminds them of it – shudders all round, and the conversation moves on. Billy Twelvetrees will be targeted, they say. Brad Barritt is a useless bosh merchant, they say. We’re confident, they (quietly) say.
Deccie’s response at lunchtime is predictable – as we expected, no changes to the XV or the bench. Self-doubt is beginning to creep in, particularly when looking at the respective benches. Still, a quick vox pop of some wild-eyed, unkempt, white plastic bag-carrying punters outside the early house told us while there was occasional dissention, fans were largely in agreement with the selection:
Rev. Mervyn McBible (Ballymena): The absence of Andrew Trimble is a clear signal Declan Kidney has invited the apocalypse upon himself
Carroll O’Kelly-Ross (Blackrock): Simon Zebo is muck roysh – all backs should be Leinster anyway, loike?
George O’Connor (Cork Con): Where is Stephen Archer? Where is Danny Barnes? Where is ROG??
We awaken to more cautious optimism – the selections have sunk in, and pundits (in Ireland) seem unanimous – it’s going to be tough, but we can squeak through. The consensus is that Ireland have a better backrow, and are a bit smarter – watch out for Sean O’Brien, the key man.
Amazingly, there were other rugger games on this weekend, and, after last weekend’s rugby-a-rama, it was back to somewhat more average fare, particularly in Paris. Scotland cruised past an inept Italy, and looked like they had remembered how Jim Telfer taught rucking; and then France put in an truly desperate performance in front of some seriously unimpressed Parisians, George North’s try and Freddy Michalak’s disinterested hands and feet do the damage, and France are nought from two.
Any lessons to be learned? Well, we beat Wales, who beat France – good news, performance affirmation for Ireland. England beat Scotland easily, who beat Italy easily, who beat France – bad news, performance affirmation for England. Both teams might just be as good as they looked.
First things first, and a quick look outside tells us it’s not a nice day – grey, dank and rainy, precisely the kind of weather the English pack will have wanted. Our skill advantage in the backrow won’t be as marked with wet grubby ball and a looming set-piece contest.
The rain wouldn’t help the atmosphere either – the object is merely to get to the stadium before pneumonia sets in, rather than stop in three or four of Dublin 4’s finest watering holes along the way. It’s a rather ominous feel – unlike the cliché of Irish teams who thrive at dirty in-your-face, muck-and-muller rugby, this more skilful and considered generation has always preferred dry tracks, where its catalogue of backline moves can be unleashed. News began filtering through to trudging wet fans that Brian O’Driscoll’s glamorous better half was now a Yummy Mummy – plus the new Daddy was still going to play – high fives all round!
The smiles, however, were short-lived. Ireland produced a catty and error-strewn performance – a first half of unforced errors and indiscipline gave way to a second half of aimless kicking as Ronan O’Gara struggled to replicate days of yore. By half-time, Ireland had accumulated nine unforced errors and one probable citing – Jamie Heaslip, Mike McCarthy and Gordon D’Arcy major culprits in spilling forward in most uncharacteristic fashion, and DJ Church taking a likely trip to the naughty step for the next game(s).
More crucial, though, was the injury to Johnny Sexton – a pulled hamstring on a seriously poor pitch (who schedules soccer matches four days before a rugby match in a country where it rains every other day?). On came the once-great O’Gara, who just doesn’t have the game for this level any more – his kicking from hand, formerly peerless, barely managed 15 metres from penalties, and was easily hovered up by the flawless English back three from open play. He was a turnover machine too – it’s not his fault he keeps getting picked, but any chance of an Irish win was lost when Sexton pulled up.
Simon Zebo was another who didn’t see half-time, and in fact he barely got his ankle-hugging socks dirty – limping off with a broken metatarsal that will keep him out for ten weeks i.e. the season. The final injury toll included Sean O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan, Bob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll – not all pitch-induced, and, to be frank, the attritional fare against Wales was probably as much to blame as this game.
The English defensive line was expertly marshalled all day, with speed and hard tackling to the fore – Ireland had barely a sniff of a break, and none close to the English 22. The scrum and maul got on top in the third quarter, and we were briefly level on the scoreboard, but the English bench, as we expected, made a big difference. We said in the build-up that Ireland needed to be more than seven points in front on the hour mark to win the game due to the strength of the English bench; they weren’t and without the ability to build on the platform the forwards were offering, they were squeezed to death.
Captain, and speaker of Classic English Rugby Voice, Chris Robshaw, was man of the match for his tackle count, but kicker and defensive rock Owen Farrell or either of the team’s full-backs, Alex Goode and Mike Brown, could have got it too. On the Irish side, O’Brien had a decent game, Peter O’Mahony was visible until he wilted, but that was it.
The crowd were as cranky as the team – Farrell was quite unsportingly heckled while kicking, and any attempt to start Swing Low was boo-ed out as if it was Dylan Hartley himself at the mike. With a poor performance, key players injured, nothing going right and a shot at a Grand Slam gone, it was not a good day for Irish rugby.