Players paying the penalty
Lack of discipline is crippling Ireland's progress in the run-up to the World Cup and, unless there's a marked improvement against Wales, the axe could fall on the perpetrators
Six games to go. Half a dozen matches before Ireland launch their latest attempt to achieve something meaningful at a World Cup. Not a lot of time to get everything running smoothly but certainly enough to sort out the ill-discipline problem that is hand-braking Ireland's momentum.
Against France, the penalties were directly responsible for the better team losing and spoiling a potential Grand Slam tilt, and against Scotland last weekend, lack of discipline very nearly allowed a markedly inferior side to snatch an unlikely victory.
Captain Brian O'Driscoll summed up the frustration and concern afterwards when he talked about "alarm bells ringing" and how players need to look at their own actions and improve or else make way for someone who will not give away three-pointers to the opposition.
His centre partner Gordon D'Arcy was equally exasperated by the issue that is undoing the obvious progress Declan Kidney is making with this team as they embrace an expansive approach that has led to six tries in two matches.
"We can't make excuses for giving away penalties, we've got to be harder on ourselves," said D'Arcy. "You like to have consistency, but we won't hide behind that because you must be able to adapt to referees on the day.
"Nobody in the Irish camp will be complaining too much about the decisions. We're the architects of our own penalties. You get angry with yourself because you're undoing all your good work in a moment with silly penalties. Everyone playing against Scotland has had Nigel Owens before. It's nothing new, it's not rocket science.
"In previous years we were the most disciplined team in the world but scored just one try, yet won by the same margin."
Owens penalised Mike Ross and Cian Healy dubiously at scrum-time (not reflecting Ireland's blatant superiority in this area) and erred badly in the second half when he first called back Eoin Reddan for a perfectly legitimate pass to Sean O'Brien and then failed to penalise the Scots in front of their own posts for interfering at the ruck when a yellow card would have been entirely justified.
Furthermore, the Welshman did seem to be paying extra attention to the Irish at the breakdown, while the Irish scrum seems to be suffering for sins of the past as referees struggle to come to the realisation that, with Ross at tight-head, it no longer buckles under pressure.
However, Owens cannot be faulted for the majority of Ireland's penalties, which can be put squarely down to poor concentration by the players.
The first concession is a case in point. Luke Fitzgerald knocked on a high ball but Paul O'Connell still could not help himself playing the ball in an offside position. Or the penalty after 14 minutes when Healy was done for not retreating quickly enough from an offside position.
Or after 17 minutes when Jamie Heaslip grabbed John Barclay's jersey over the top of a ruck. Then Rory Best was penalised for failing to roll away and Ireland's best attacking passage of the tournament shortly before half-time came to an abrupt halt when Ronan O'Gara was pinged, possibly a little harshly, for failing to release.
Heaslip was responsible for another three points in the second half for not releasing after the tackle and substitute Denis Leamy was fortunate to avoid yellow when he careered through the ruck into an offside position which saw Dan Parks pop over a drop goal when playing the advantage. (Incidentally, the tactic of going for a drop goal when playing advantage is ridiculous. It is a free play, so why not throw caution to the wind and go for a try when you have a penalty kick in any case?)
What is truly infuriating is the needlessness of it all. Ireland's defence is back to the levels it was at when they landed the Grand Slam two years ago. France only managed a try due to one uncharacteristic missed tackle by D'Arcy, who had a big defensive game at Murrayfield; Italy only managed to score when Ireland were down to 14 men.
Les Kiss' defensive system is working well and, rather than succumb to acts of impetuosity at the breakdown, it should be trusted. The old rugby call of "let them have" when the opposition have ruck possession is precisely what Ireland should have done on Sunday.
Aside from Max Evans and, to a lesser extent, Sean Lamont, Scotland had very little in attack to worry the Irish so let them have it and make your tackles.
As O'Driscoll rightly pointed out afterwards, silly offences like hands in the ruck, not rolling away, holding on in the tackle and not retreating from an offside position are "not acceptable".
"We scored three tries to nil, but penalties kept them in it," said D'Arcy. "You have six minutes of build-up play progressing nicely into their 22, then one penalty undoes all that positive play."
It is a question of concentration and Ireland have proven they have the capacity to control their discipline when they most need to. In the last 10 minutes with the Scots fired up and feral in pursuit of victory, Ireland, with O'Connell absolutely immense, kept their heads and the miscreant play that had gone before was replaced by collective desire not to give the home side any more help.
"Composure was a big thing because nobody panicked," noted D'Arcy. "When it mattered there were no penalties, no infringements, so that begs the question why did we not do that for the other 70 minutes? Without a shadow of a doubt it's rectifiable."
Amid all the navel-gazing over discipline it should not be forgotten that Ireland could be on the verge of something special. They have sorted out the handling errors that stymied them in the opening two matches, now they need to replicate the last 10 minutes against Scotland when Jonathan Kaplan takes the whistle in Cardiff.
If Ireland have had their penalty problems, the Welsh have been even worse (see panel) and if Kidney's side keep their heads and the tally down around seven or eight, they could beat Wales relatively handily because they are a superior side.
The same players should have the opportunity to put things right but if the same scenario unfolds again, Kidney will have to take selectorial action with just five games left to get it right.
- When arguing, in yesterday's paper, for the introduction of Kevin McLaughlin to provide a third line-out option, the team to play Wales mistakenly included the Leinster flanker alongside Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace when it was meant to be alongside Heaslip and Sean O'Brien. It would be harsh on Wallace, who is having a productive Six Nations, but O'Brien is playing too well to leave out.