Saturday 21 October 2017

Everything we thought we knew turned out to be wrong

There's a lot more work to be done - this time with a lot less pride

Johnny Sexton had a day to forget in the green jersey
Johnny Sexton had a day to forget in the green jersey

Eamonn Sweeney

Not since Oedipus commented on what a brilliant job he was doing as King of Thebes has hubris been so painfully punished. And the most painful thing of all was that almost everything we thought we knew turned out to be wrong.

We knew, for example, that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were by some distance the outstanding half-back partnership in the Six Nations. Yet, by the end of the game, the out-of-touch duo had been replaced as Joe Schmidt turned to Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan to try and pull the fat out of the fire.

We knew that Ireland's lineout was well nigh unassailable only to see the Welsh pilfer from our throw-in almost at will, twice stealing the ball when Ireland had spurned points and kicked to the corner in the expectation of setting up a driving maul for the line.

We knew that Ireland had no peers when it comes to winning the ball in the air, something fancifully put down to our players' supposed grounding in Gaelic games. That one went out the window as Welsh players soared over their Irish opponents to win a series of aerial duels. It turns out that a sport played by many people in Wales also provides perfect practice in fielding high balls. Rugby, I think they call it.

We knew that the Welsh were our inferiors. In fact, we've been displaying hubris in this respect ever since we decided to treat our victory last year as some kind of referendum on the Lions tour and did our damnedest to disdain the massive Welsh contribution to the victory in Australia. Well, if Warren Gatland really does have the intellect of a tub of Flora we can thank our lucky stars Wales didn't bring along a few Ryvita crackers as well to give us an even worse beating.

And we knew above all that in the Joe Schmidt era Ireland have cut mistakes to a minimum. We simply don't do anything silly. Yet here was a Sexton kick-off sailing directly into touch just after he'd missed a scorable penalty, a three-man overlap spurned as Tommy Bowe waved with the forlorn air of a man shipwrecked on a desert island trying to hail a passing yacht, sundry handling errors and wrong options taken and a general air of chaos enveloping the team.

We weren't wrong about everything. We knew that watching Wayne Barnes would be a trial and as usual he didn't disappoint in this respect, giving a superb impersonation of a man hired to perform Mozart's Concerto for Whistle in Cardiff only to find himself being intermittently interrupted by a rugby match taking place at the venue. Infallibly irritating as he is, we can't pin this defeat on him.

And we suspected that Ireland's lack of penetration behind the scrum might cost us dear somewhere along the line. The sad truth is that the only significant breaks when the ball was moved across the three-quarter line came when Paul O'Connell popped up there. You gave up even expecting Jared Payne to accomplish anything with ball in hand while Simon Zebo looked worryingly lightweight as he was picked up and dumped down by the Welsh defenders.

The difference between the two teams in this respect was most clearly shown in the third quarter. Ireland put together 29 phases of possession followed by 20 phases and came away with nothing, moving laterally and even backwards as often as forwards. It was the kind of situation which had so often in the past been resolved by Brian O'Driscoll taking on responsibility, crouching down and scrambling the final few yards to the line. He used to make the whole operation look routine. Without him, it looks almost impossible for this Irish team.

Our failure to secure a single point from these two prolonged spells of possession inside the Welsh 22 was thrown into stark relief when the home team came right back down the field and scored what would ultimately prove the match-winning try, sub Scott Williams scything through in a manner which Ireland never looked likely to produce on the day. Those who criticise Schmidt for not playing a more free-flowing game might reflect on the possibility that he doesn't have the personnel. There is no D'Arcy or O'Driscoll or Nacewa on this team.

What there is, however, is a magnificent pack and, lineout troubles aside, they came very close to getting Ireland out of jail. O'Connell has never been better than he was in this his 100th appearance; we dominated the scrums even if Barnes denied us the opportunity of taking full advantage from them; O'Brien and O'Mahony were their usual indomitable selves. It remains a team which cannot be faulted for effort, desire and character. Ireland will win more than their fair share of possession against any opposition. The answer of what we do with that possession may decide how far this team can go.

There is still a Six Nations title on the line.

Should Ireland make it two on the trot, it will be a feat we have not accomplished since 1949. So this can still be a glorious campaign.

But right now the message from Cardiff is: a lot done, a lot more to do.

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