Saturday 3 December 2016

Dangerous game reaps the flawed winners it deserves

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Conor Murray shows the scars of battle after being on the receiving end of Mike Brown’s boot. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray shows the scars of battle after being on the receiving end of Mike Brown’s boot. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

So a cloth of diplomacy is pulled, bodybag tight, around the postscript and this game of men diminishes ever further into a vaudeville turn.

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If the whole of Ireland feels it just wants a holiday from Eddie Jones now, that's to be expected. And the masculine thing, the only (supposedly) honourable thing for a beaten team to do is swallow hard, pack up your bumps and vacate the premises, palliating your frustration with talk of positives.

That's pretty much what Ireland did on Saturday in South West London. They took their medicine. They looked at the stitches so close to Conor Murray's eye and swerved carefully away from any suggestion that, maybe, something pretty wretched had occurred there.

Rugby has a problem just now with the physical toll it is taking on its constituents. But it has an even bigger problem with its habit of seeking refuge in euphemism, in its reluctance to condemn. If Mike Brown did not know precisely where Murray's head was as he raked his boot over and back at the bottom of that late ruck, perhaps England might consider presenting him with a dog harness and an accommodating labrador.

That isn't to say that he intentionally kicked Murray in the face. I very much doubt any responsible adult could do that. But Brown surely neglected the most basic duty of care a player should honour on the field.

Jones's pre-game pugnacity, of course, was nothing to his endgame triumphalism. He is the perfect flower of Australia's most swaggering Alpha-male philosophy. In replacing Stuart Lancaster with him, England have gone from Dick Van Dyke in a flying car to Jack Nicholson taking an axe to furniture. So there is an essential fatuity to the process of questioning him on anything as cumbersome as a conscience. He just grins and refers to himself as "a convict".

Trenches

In any event, the 'manly' vernacular of rugby supports him. If a player goes to ground in the tackle without releasing the ball, he is entitled to expect "a shoeing". That's the language of the trenches. And the Constitution.

Ireland, it should be said, were beaten by a better team at Twickenham. The Murray incident shouldn't obscure that.

But what it should do is to shine a light on the game's timid self-policing. The TMO, pointedly, deemed Murray's injuries "accidental" despite there being four separate pendulum swings of Brown's boot in the general precinct of the Irish scrum-half's head. Joe Schmidt declared himself happy that Brown would never have kicked Murray in the head on purpose.

And World Rugby, where does it stand? Maybe someone will dispense one of those Citing Commissioner warnings, maybe not.

The point is that, if you are the parent of a young rugby player - with all the attendant worries about physical overload, spinal injury and concussion - how do you reconcile the general acceptance that nothing greatly untoward happened at Twickenham on Saturday with any confidence that this game is both civilised and safe?

When you see a player, with free view of everything at his feet, snap his boot into the face of a prone opponent?

The physical toll of Saturday's game made little effort to conceal itself. Of the Irish players who came to speak to us, Rob Kearney had a golfball swelling on his right cheekbone leading to a gentle bleed towards the eye-socket. And there was a ruby, zig-zag mark running down from Ultan Dillane's left eyebrow.

Neither man took much issue with the terms of engagement albeit, when asked about Murray's injuries, Kearney did sigh quietly: "A player getting a kick in the face is never ideal, is it?"

The defeat formally ended Ireland's Championship defence and, though, they played more rugby than in the Paris loss, they lacked the accuracy to make it count. Considering that England laboured for 20 minutes of the second half with 14 men, there was then little enough comfort to be taken from the smallprint.

True, Josh van der Flier probably scored a perfectly good try (though the TMO couldn't award something he didn't see) and Rob Henshaw was maybe half a metre from another. But England's power always seemed to threaten bad news.

Kearney talked of the team's frustration at another Twickenham loss. "It gets a little bit harder," he said. "The scoreboard maybe flattered them a little bit but we have to wait another two years now for the next opportunity. It's disappointing.

"We're fighting it out and we've got two massive games to make sure we're not scrambling around at the bottom. We need to make sure that we stay confident and that we keep trusting the system and make sure that some of those opportunities pay off."

At times, it was a little hard to identify the specifics of that system.

The first half especially trundled by in a kind of lopsided stalemate; England just rolling through uninspiring phases; Ireland defending furiously. There was a faint air of torpor in the stadium, encapsulated by the strange sight of Billy Vunipola's almost furtive escape from a 23rd-minute ruck and subsequent amble towards the Irish '22' with all the explosive impetus of the Queen Mary entering dock.

Vunipola tossed Andrew Trimble aside like a skittle before Murray and CJ Stander managed to bundle England's circus strongman into touch.

It seemed to take James Haskell's yellow and Murray's subsequent 46th-minute try to awaken England. Ben Youngs should have been carded for a late hit on Jonathan Sexton and, if the Irish out-half spent much of the remaining time running in some degree of discomfort, he remained Ireland's most combative and clear-thinking runner.

No matter, the England tries came and, with them, a rising appetite from some - Brown most conspicuously - to shout the odds at every ruck decision in their favour.

Perhaps consolation came in the performances of new caps, Van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and the positively rampaging substitute, Dillane. Little more than a year ago, Van der Flier was playing AIL rugby with UCD. Dillane might as well have been found at the end of a beanstalk. But this Championship is done for Ireland now.

The two remaining games should be exploratory exercises for Schmidt. For England, and Jones, perhaps a Grand Slam looms.

A game gets the kings it deserves.

Irish Independent

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