Lack of game plan played right into English hands
Published 12/02/2013 | 04:00
Of all the rugby wars he so purposefully engaged in, Martin Johnson recalls a 1995 Five Nations game in Dublin as his favourite. Why? Because in howling wind and driving rain, what he regarded as the frivolity of back-line play was suspended, two packs just going toe-to-toe with grim abandon.
It was a wretched game of football, England squeezing the life out of opponents with a game plan that didn't extend far beyond putting the ball up their jumpers.
Rugby was about to take the great leap forward into professionalism, but certain principles looked set in stone. Given certain conditions, the bigger, meaner team would always win.
So what has changed in 18 years?
It's surely a question worth asking because the game that England brought to Lansdowne Road last Sunday was precisely the type that gave Johnson so much pleasure in '95. It amounted to a simple exertion of physical authority. Virtually every respected pundit predicted how England would play in Dublin.
They would stifle the game, kick a lot and look to grind out a result through sheer power. All we waited to see was Ireland's plan to cope. And we're still waiting.
The intellectualisation of sport has spawned armies of back-room staff who break down every small detail of a game, theoretically to the point where their information is like the telemetry in a Formula One car. A driver cannot bluff the computer reading, so the information becomes a kind of truth test.
In rugby's case, though, the 'telemetry' begins to play tricks with the mind. The match stats from last weekend were almost uniformly favourable from an Irish context.
The home team had more possession than England, more territory, broke more tackles, won more rucks and mauls, had better line-out and scrum figures and made more line breaks. All this in a game that they never looked like winning.
So what was Ireland's game plan?
Where was the strategy to take England out of their comfort zone?
Why did the team look so rudderless in possession? Why so much seemingly aimless kicking to the opposition wings or full-back? Did the plan amount to just hoping one of them might drop the ball?
Declan Kidney has an extensive coaching team, yet only Anthony Foley could take kudos from the performance, given the tightness of Ireland's defence.
And considering that Ireland did not score from the 43rd minute on in Cardiff, they now have the grand total of six points to show for their last 117 minutes of championship rugby.
Indeed, given the way they were – at times – torn apart in that second half against Wales, even that victory carried its share of fortune in the end.
There tends to be a lot of idle rhetoric in the build-up to England games, particularly in Dublin, and there's no doubting that some of last week's 'championship showdown' talk now comes back as dangerous conceit.
Bear in mind, when we deprived the English of a Grand Slam at Lansdowne Road in 2001, Bertie Ahern was carted around the dressing-room afterwards on the shoulders of two Irish players.
Beating England always fulfils some kind of fundamental national yearning, so maybe we don't always go about it with the clearest of heads.
On Sunday, Jamie Heaslip conceded a second-minute penalty for not rolling away and, moments later, spilled a restart under pressure from England left-wing, Mike Brown. For the captain of the team, this was the opening from hell and his day did not get conspicuously better.
Heaslip is a good guy and, potentially, a world-class No 8. But Kidney's decision to give him the captaincy ahead of Brian O'Driscoll makes less sense by the hour.
Put it this way, if Stephen Ferris was fit for the game in Scotland, Heaslip would – on form – have to be the most vulnerable of the back-row. But Kidney cannot drop his captain, even though Peter O'Mahony would – if anything – be happier at the back of the scrum.
The match stats, incidentally, tell us that Jamie was joint-second for ball-carries on Sunday.
Again a case of information not strictly tallying with what was seen by the naked eye. Prior to the game in Cardiff, Keith Wood pointed to the startling difference in Heaslip's stats and those of the Wales No 8, Toby Faletau.
Whilst Faletau's career figures for carries were inferior to the Irishman's, his metres covered stretched into another galaxy.
Yesterday, Planet Rugby did not include a single Irishman in their 'Team of Round 2'. One week earlier we got five, yet one of those – Simon Zebo – is now out of the rest of the championship and, potentially, Lions consideration.
With Ferris and Paul O'Connell among the long-term injured, Jonny Sexton likely to miss the Scotland game at least and a raft of other fitness worries to key men carrying over from Sunday's brutally physical Test, all three remaining games suddenly look treacherous. From giddy talk of a Grand Slam, the challenge now may be to preserve respectability.
Yesterday, England No 8, James Haskell, tweeted: "Wow I ache and sting from head to foot today." His team won the physical contest on Sunday because that's, essentially, the only thing that Ireland challenged them to do.
The game was as uncomplicated as an arm-wrestle, a glimpse of modern rugby stripped of all modernity and sophistication, re-affirming Martin Johnson's grizzled old philosophy.
In war, the big guy always wins.