Well, hello everyone. We were sentenced to three weeks solitary confinement on Twitter by The Man for under-use of the phrase “you never know which France will turn up”. In the event, and as expected, we did know, but Ireland lacked the accuracy and gumption to beat them. Every ruck was like a war zone, Ireland were stuck narrow and when they did get wide, there was a paucity of ideas and accuracy.
It’s been a tough start to the series – the scrum has been poor, the lineout average, and the breakdown a lottery. Ireland’s successive championships have been based on strong defence and swift and accurate counter-rucking without over-committing, with the regular supply of fast ball has enabled Schmidt’s men to dictate the terms of engagement. The defence is still excellent, but Ireland have lost the ability to score points, with only three coming in 80 second half minutes.
Under Schmidt, Ireland have frequently been very strong after half-time, scoring tries in the first 10 minutes of the second half against England, France, South Africa (2014) and England, France (RWC), Argentina (2015). That strength hasn’t been present in this tournament, and the bench hasn’t been able to turn the loss in momentum. Without a doubt, injuries have hit us badly – Healy, Ross, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Sexton, Payne, Dishy Dave, Earls, Fitzgerald and Zebo have all missed time at some point – that’s the guts of a team. And of course Some Ginger Bloke From Limerick has retired.
We’re not really sure that the much-discussed tactics aren’t working any more as much as Ireland can’t execute. The team feels tired, perhaps in need of new strings, but probably not a complete re-cast.
Now Ross is back, he simply has to come into the team and steady the scrum – and we should really think about giving Furlong some game time at some point. For the home games? Perhaps facing Mako Vunipola for 25 minutes isn’t the right time – or perhaps it is. When we hear ROG say “Twickenham is no place to throw a guy in”, we instinctively get a little suspicious – both Furlong and White are professional rugby players who live for occasions like this, the real question should be: do we think White or Furlong is better equipped to handle Vunipola? If it’s a tie, pick Furlong, he’s younger and will be around for the next number of years. Just like BOD’s Twitter, the messenger shouldn’t be equated with the message.
In the row, it’s simply hands over the eyes and hoping for the best – Ryan hasn’t been playing at all well enough to inspire anything like confidence, but perhaps Ultan Dillane will do well. With England dispensing with the Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes for the much more frightening Awesome Power of Maro Itoje, this is a huge test. The backrow haven’t really gelled yet this tournament, despite the emergence of the passionate one – indeed Stander has emerged as our primary ball carrier, and we’ve been a little over-reliant on him to say the least. There is an element of “give it to the big guy”, Stander is actually effective at carrying but since everyone else just falls over at the first contact, it’s pretty predictable. He made plenty of metres against Wales, but the French got to him and he averaged a second-row-esque 70cm per carry. And of course when Stander, or anyone else, gets tackled, we haven’t been able to clear out rucks effectively. Perhaps it’s time to pick wingers for their rucking? While we’re on the topic, the selection of McFadden for Paris was predictably ineffective – he missed tackles, passed poorly and the game passed him by. We have legitimate concerns about Craig Gilroy’s tackling and positioning, but it’s no worse than Ferg’s right now – and he know where the try line is. Schmidt bottled that selection, and it hopefully doesn’t happen again. In any case, with Zebo and Earls back in contention for the weekend, McFadden can be safely dispatched to Leinster.
We disgress. A backrow of Stander, O’Donnell and Heaslip should be able to cope with England’s battery of 6.5’s – plenty of #unseenwork in there, and having Rhys Ruddock (still only 25!) to come off the bench feels good to us. The huge hole at second row (Lawes would likely be our number one lock, but can’t make the England 23) means we are unlikely to win the forward battle, but we shouldn’t get completely mauled either. The game feels to us like one of those ones that will be close on the scoreboard, but the result never really in doubt, 16-9 or something, like a (slightly) higher-class version of the Calcutta Cup.
The game might be more notable for it being Choo Choo Stu’s big chance – Jared Payne has been defensively excellent for Ireland, a real lynchpin, but he looks unlikely to make it. The obvious move would be to put Henshaw out one and bring in the big McCloskey. Ironically, bringing in what looks like a classic crash ball merchants is likely to add a new dimension to Ireland’s attack. McCloskey instinctively looks for space and is an intelligent heads-up footballer. We don’t think we’ll lose as much defensively stepping down from Payne to Henshaw as some people think either. Still, probably not the winning/losing of the game.
Once we get Twickenham out of the way, we’d like to see the likes of van der Flier or Ringrose given a look – while they look physically not 100% ready for the likes of England away, are we really saying we don’t think they could cope with Scotland or Italy at home? Equally, it feels like the time to give Paddy Jackson a start. Jackson’s Irish career has never really got going, with an extremely tough baptism in the fag end of the Deccie era – if Sexton thought it tough taking over from ROG and feeling the semi-public opprobrium that came with it, imagine how it was for a 21 year old Jackson with less than a year as Ulster starter – followed by a loss of form in 2014/15 that led to him losing out of both Keatley and Madigan that series. But with Maddog on his way to France, and Sexton seemingly in a state of perma-recovery from a knock, it seems likely he’ll be Ireland’s starting outhalf at some point in the future. Again, Scotland and Italy at home – what’s the real risk to giving him a pick? Now that the chance of a three-peat is virtually gone, and without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s try and expand our options