Friday 9 December 2016

Tony Ward: Knives are out for Schmidt but little cause for alarm in unlucky Paris defeat

Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30

Joe Schmidt is now being questioned closely and maybe that is no bad thing. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt is now being questioned closely and maybe that is no bad thing. Photo: Sportsfile

To the opening weekend's loss of Triple Crown and Grand Slam aspirations, add realistic dreams of a third successive Six Nations title now.

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It is still mathematically possible, but already we are depending upon results elsewhere, as well as winning our three remaining games.

With England gathering momentum ahead of their clash with the reigning champions in two weeks' time, Joe Schmidt cut to the chase in the aftermath in Paris, stating: "For us, it will be build towards Twickenham and put together the best performance we can over there."

His point is well taken and the emphasis on "performance" fully understood. I guess we should be thankful for small mercies that the TV paymasters in cahoots with the Six Nations organising committee have given us two weeks (and believe it or not a full 14 days at that) to lick our wounds, attempt to rehabilitate the injured and re-assess where we go from here.

Much though we will all be clamouring for change - and include me in that - I expect there to be a battening down of the hatches and circling of the wagons around the camp.

We didn't come remotely close to an optimum level of performance in Paris but there were mitigating factors.

The rainfall was unrelenting, and anyone who has played the game at any level in such conditions knows what a difference that makes to finger-tip passing and the opportunities for attacking space further out.

Bongo drums

There was also the issue of officiating. I am loath to criticise referees as I feel theirs is a thankless task. On Saturday, however, I felt Jaco Peyper had a poor 80 minutes with the team in green by and large the victim to indifferent refereeing.

Between the man in the middle, the touch judges (and that included Nigel Owens) and TMO George Ayoub, you felt communication was jammed somewhere between bongo drums and morse code. At no stage did you feel they were in control and singing off the same page.

I was astonished that Yoann Maestri escaped with a warning from the citing commissioner for his off-the-ball hit on Johnny Sexton and would be shocked if Guilhem Guirado was similarly lucky for his high tackle on Dave Kearney. And no, I am not wearing green-tinted glasses.

Again I would make the point that while the referee is following the ball of necessity, what in God's name are touch judges at?

The French deserved to win this game for the quality of their defending but more than anything for their use of the scrum.

It's not rocket science deciphering where they will hit you hardest, and when it comes to scrummaging they never deviate, only this time Guy Noves got it close to tactical perfection.

He gambled on Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio surviving the opening 40 before launching the heavy artillery in Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous. These tactical substitutions plus Maxime Machenaud for Sebastien Bezy at the base of the scrum had the desired effect pre-planned.

From an Irish perspective, we're grasping at straws. Individually, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble had their moments, but collectively, while never giving less than 100pc, we were bereft of attacking nous.

Payne deserves special mention as it was obvious from early he was carrying an injury.

Once Slimani and Ben Arous arrived they turned the scrummaging screw, making it nigh on impossible to get into French territory. In that context the deliberate knock-down by Maxime Mermoz with ten minutes remaining was critical.

How it was missed by touch judge Stuart Berry (on that side) and the TMO from on high is beyond me. Schmidt made much of the Henshaw/Kearney incident in the first half and understandably, given that it was one of the few times we came close to the French try line.

There was also the Conor Murray pass which bounced unintentionally off Trimble's head.

On such seemingly small incidents do attritional matches at this level swing.

The scrum call for the intentional knock-down by Mermoz was massive: it denied Ian Madigan the opportunity to kick into the French 22 and implement an attacking maul. Instead we had another couple of minutes wasted resetting the scrum (another bugbear of mine with the clock ticking) inside the Irish half.

So the more tactically astute team earned their win, but for sure it was an Irish opportunity lost.

This is a French team in transition and at this point in time it's a very limited one, despite their obvious ambition.

For a French team in Paris to scrape a win by a point and then proceed to do a lap of honour is a statement in itself. It speaks volumes that when they were awarded a kickable penalty with the clock in red numbers, they couldn't get the ball off the field quickly enough.

Despite Ireland's ever growing list of injuries I do believe there are measured options to improve our attacking scope.

My faith in the main man has not diminished one iota but he faces a new challenge and one he certainly has not experienced in Irish rugby other than his first few months at Leinster - when there were some people urging him to take a quick hike.

He is now being questioned closely and maybe that is no bad thing.

Irish Independent

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