Sunday 23 July 2017

Neil Francis: Irish air raid up there with Martin Johnson's carpet bomb

O'Mahony lineout steal the key play as English 'Swing Low' superstars are ruthlessly exposed

Peter O'Mahoney in action against France and (inset) the red carpet incident
Peter O'Mahoney in action against France and (inset) the red carpet incident
Peter O’Mahony puts Courtney Lawes under pressure from an England lineout. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

After the match last Saturday, I ended up in one of those hospitality suites deep in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium. I happened upon Damian Hopley and Lawrence Dallaglio and we chatted for a while.

The English get a bad rap from us but they are very gracious losers. That I see as a sign of strength not weakness. As I was dragged away, I imparted to Lawrence: "No red carpet day today." I don't think he understood what I meant.

Back in 2003, Martin Johnson brought his side over to Lansdowne Road looking to complete a Grand Slam. In our righteous indignation and furious anger over the red carpet incident, we very conveniently forget that we got hosed that day. We all concentrated on the slight to Mary McAleese. The 42-6 stuffing though was a far bigger injury.

Big Loll got over early under the sticks and England opened up the throttle and that was it. A focused and clinical disposal. I remember writing a piece in defence of Johnson and his stance - absolutely justifiable. England, after blowing a number of Grand Slam opportunities in previous years, were here to do a job - they were not going to take one step backwards for anyone. They were here to win. Ireland's traditional or lucky side of the carpet? Presidents? Not in their line of focus!

The infamous incident at Lansdowne Road in 2003 when England captain Martin Johnson forced President Mary McAleese to walk on the grass. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The infamous incident at Lansdowne Road in 2003 when England captain Martin Johnson forced President Mary McAleese to walk on the grass. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

I have played in Test matches away from home and had to sit and wait as the host Union ground staff try to frustrate the away team. Once, famously, in Twickenham when we were left waiting for over seven minutes outside the stadium gates.

"Who are you?"

"We are the f**king leprechauns, who do you think we are?"

He wouldn't let us in - we know how you felt when the bus was late, Joe.

Away team dressing room locked, who has got the key? Johnson's team had been hassled by some IRFU gremlin who was doing his best to annoy England and when Johnson chose to line out beside the red carpet on the side that they had warmed up on and the same gremlin asked them to move to the other side, Johnson quite rightly refused to budge.

They were here to do a job - to win a Grand Slam. They were well prepared, determined, serious about the task and were not going to take any s**t from anyone. 42-6!

Did anyone think that England arrived over in red-carpet mode for the game last Saturday? I don't think so. Eddie Jones talked the talk - they would be ready for the ambush, they could deal with anything Ireland could throw at them, they would be confident of repelling the Irish aerial bombardment.

Unyielding England were a long way off where they needed to be mentally. Uncompromising? Unyielding? Not even close! In many ways that Scottish humiliation the previous week was their undoing. I imagine that Jones will have to think again about at least one third of his side. There were too many 'Swing Low' superstars - Twickenham heroes.

George Ford is a super footballer but outside of Twickenham he really struggles in tight games. His minder, Owen Farrell, has mental starch but had to look after his own game. Ford is on nobody's list to go to New Zealand, least of all Wazza's.

Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley are flat-track bullies - once they can't impose their will, they disappear off the park. Great when 'Swing Low' is belted out in Twickenham. I would say that Jones has already made the decision to discard Hartley. I suspect Wazza has too.

I would not be sure of sending out Jonathan Joseph or Anthony Watson into a fire-and-brimstone Test match against New Zealand in a rainy Auckland next June. England have star quality and a big aggressive pack but if you go at them they are human and they do bruise. They may also struggle for leadership in the next year or so. Did they bottle it? No, they just weren't mentally good enough on the day.

Ireland were very good and had a prescriptive strategy which Joe Schmidt was itching to lay down on them. Maybe we shouldn't get rid of Schmidt after all. Joe was a little lucky on the injury front which meant he was able to mix it up and freshen it up. All the introductions worked. Schmidt was able to keep the pot on the boil.

Ireland's Championship hinged on something as simple as two lineout steals. Let me say this - if I was Ireland's lineout forward right now and my forwards coach told me to stay on the ground and let the opposition have free ball and wait for them to come down so we could try and disrupt their maul - well, let's just say there would be a difference of opinion. No free ball! No easy ball! Ever! Get your men into the air every time, irrespective of where you are on the field and make them win the ball the hard way.

Ireland's Championship came undone in Cardiff in the first quarter when they opted for a lineout maul five metres out. Alun Wyn Jones read the situation, trusted his judgement and instinct, and got up and claimed the ball. Ireland probably anticipated that Wales would stay on the ground and the throw didn't factor in Welsh arms in the air. Ireland got picked off and instead of going for a lineout maul over the line and the probability of a good start plus a lead to subdue the Welsh, it galvanised them and they broke out. Ireland never really seriously threatened the Welsh line again.

Get your men in the air! Peter O'Mahony's steal in the 73rd minute was a lot more crucial than people think. England beat Wales in the last 10 minutes in Cardiff as their pack latched onto the fact that Wales were fraying at the edges and they capitalised on that.

Win that lineout in Ireland's 22, get a squeeze on and drive the maul forward, get the Vunipola brothers running close to the rucks and suddenly space and a chink of light appear. England would get width on it and probe and inch closer. They would have the composure not to rush it or turn the ball over and eventually they would work their way over the line. Farrell would convert and it would be 13-19 with two minutes left. England are Grand Slam champions and Eddie is a genius.

That was a €2m lineout steal (RBS Six Nations prize-money) and it came from the recognition that personified Ireland's aggressive performance all over the park. If you wait passively on the ground, you get what you deserve. If you throw men into the air - the rewards can be huge and in this case it was. Cole and Launchbury were not able to get Itoje up quickly enough and O'Mahony, three stone lighter, got hoisted into the air much quicker and he got up in front and pilfered the ball. It was an easy one to read and Toner's 6'11" marking Launchbury's 6'6" this time as a lifter did the job.

Ireland knew where the throw was going and went for it. Itoje's look of despair said it all as Jamie George's throw did not factor in O'Mahony's reach and athleticism. Lazy thinking! It was the match.

Ireland won an incredible 22 balls out of 22 and had two steals against France for a perfect day. They also got nine out of nine and one steal against Italy. They won 13 out of 14 and had two steals against England but last Saturday was their best lineout day because of simply getting their men in the air and being aggressive and disruptive while they were up there. O'Mahony was the key figure and Ireland changed their lineout tactics to accommodate him. It put England under real pressure and set the tone all around the park. It will be a different England team that Ireland face in Twickenham in 2018. Eddie will be waiting for Ireland. That loss on Saturday really hurt!

Irish Independent

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