Thursday 29 September 2016

Comment: It's not about luck - Ireland need to stop allowing themselves to be bullied

Leaders need to step up and stop Schmidt's side being bullied

Published 01/03/2016 | 02:30

England duo Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph tackle Ireland full-back Rob Kearney. Photo: Henry Browne/Reuters
England duo Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph tackle Ireland full-back Rob Kearney. Photo: Henry Browne/Reuters

After all three of their games in this year's Six Nations, Ireland have had legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the officials.

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Whether it's the illegal angles of Wales' scrum, Jaco Peyper's leniency towards the French over-aggression or the television match official's decision not to award Josh van der Flier's legitimate-looking try, there have been moments where the men in green have come off the worst of the calls.

That's what led to Joe Schmidt bringing luck into the equation on Saturday evening as he lamented his side's inability "to buy a trick" in this campaign.

Yet the Kiwi is hard-nosed enough to know that luck has little to do with success at the top level of international sport where the margins, as he is so fond of reminding everyone, are at their finest.

Ireland need to take the referee out of the equation. They need to stop allowing themselves be bullied. They need to be smart and they need their leaders to step out of the shadows and take control of games.

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When the issue was put to Schmidt in the aftermath of the Twickenham defeat, the head coach used the word experience six times in answering.

"I think it's one of those things that experience brings," he said. "When you've got experienced players they probably know the fine margins a little bit more, they push it to the right amount.

"We had a couple of guys come back in who are experienced and I felt our front-row did well in the first half.

"When we get those sort of guys back in you can see that it's not that they're any stronger, it's just that they're a little bit more conscious of what an opponent might do and then what he might change up to do if that's not working.

"They tend to be, with their experience, better problem solvers within the moments that matter in the game. So the more experience some of these guys get, hopefully we can build a bit of that experience and go forward as a result."

Between them, Ireland's starting XV on Saturday had a combined total of 621 Test caps. Six of them are Lions and the majority have Six Nations medals.

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True, Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier were making their debuts, while CJ Stander is only three caps into his international career. Robbie Henshaw remains a young man accumulating his experience at the top level.

Since last season's second successive title, Paul O'Connell has joined Brian O'Driscoll in the great television studio in the stand, and Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson are among the players who are absent through injury.

Yet, there are surely enough players there who have banked big days in green that experience should not be an issue.

Filling the leadership void left by O'Mahony and O'Connell has perhaps been Schmidt's greatest challenge - along with scoring tries - this season.

Both men knew when to lay their body on the line for Ireland. When England peeled off a dominant scrum and surged into the visitors' 22 ahead of their first try, one wonders whether one of the Munster men would have taken one for the team.

Certainly, Ireland got numbers to the ruck but their attempts to slow the ball down legally came to no fruition before England exploited the numbers on the far side of the pitch.

After the game, Schmidt lamented the fact that whenever Ireland came within metres of the English line, the home side would find a way, legally or otherwise, to slow them down.

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In this Six Nations, referees have been slow to give yellow cards and it took 72 minutes for Danny Care to get punished for lying on the wrong side of the ruck after Ultan Dillane and Van der Flier's exchange of passes.

There were illegal entries to rucks and mauls, there were sly hands and there were legitimate interventions. Even when Ireland got over the line, England hurled their bodies into the way to deny the television cameras easy angles.

Ireland perhaps worry too much about what they call "painting pictures" for the referee.

Sure, they push the boundaries with their blocking of tacklers and by holding players after rucks are formed, but they need to get better at knowing when and where to step in.

While Dylan Hartley was in Romain Poite's ear all day, Rory Best chose his moments and has been criticised for not being vocal enough with the officials. Perhaps more worrying for the captain is that Ireland couldn't adapt to the job England were doing on the lineout, where he and Devin Toner were outsmarted all day.

Another key question is why it is always the Irish half-backs who are targeted? If it's fair game to go after Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton who came in for heavy treatment all day, then where were the Irish enforcers laying down the law to Ben Youngs and George Ford?

When Youngs and Owen Farrell are acting the bully, you know there's a perception out there that Ireland can be gotten at.

It is up to Ireland's captain and vice-captain Jamie Heaslip to step in and fill the void left by O'Connell.

There were signs of progress at Twickenham, but with the Rugby Championship giants still to come in 2016, it won't matter if they can't hold their own.

Irish Independent

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