Saturday 25 March 2017

With Owens out of the picture, Ireland are ready to click again

A potential stroll in Scotland wasn't helped by a ref with blinkers on, says Neil Francis

It has to be said that Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy's dynamic parlays were practically unstoppable in Murrayfield. Photo: Brendan Moran
It has to be said that Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy's dynamic parlays were practically unstoppable in Murrayfield. Photo: Brendan Moran
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

This is true, the Scots did stand against Proud Edward's army at Bannockburn in 1314 and his army was routed there by Robert the Bruce. They did indeed send him homewards 'tae think again'.





It would be fair to say also that the English did think about it for a good while and duly came back and knocked d'bollix out of the Scots for their temerity and audacity. The English don't do defeat well and they laid waste to Scotland until both parties sued for lasting peace over a decade later.

The Scots, I am pretty sure, will not be spared by England the sort of evisceration which Ireland should have inflicted on them at Murrayfield. They are truly lamentable. Poor old Robbo, his face was filled with broken commandments. Scotland's game plan -- much like the lost continent of Atlantis -- no longer appears on my map. It just begs the question about what Ireland were doing for the 80 minutes. If the gulf in class between the sides is about 30 points, how did Ireland go about whittling down that sizeable margin?

Scotland had a helping hand. But Nigel Owens, not quite as dainty as Proud Edward, had a profound influence and he will have to think again about his performance. He has long since departed the friends of Irish rugby VIP room. For the last 18 months you will be hard pressed to find a favourable penalty count when he has refereed either Ireland or an Irish province.

We all know that the penalty count went 13-4 against us. We all know that the fundamentals of the game are to win ball, retain it and put pressure on your opponent and eventually they will yield a score by either letting you cross their line or concede a penalty for illegally stopping you crossing their line. A line break count of nine to one in Ireland's favour tells you that Ireland were the ones doing all the attacking and applying all the pressure. A penalty count of 13-4 against Ireland tells you that Ireland were under severe pressure -- the statistics are incongruous. The person in charge of the match adjudged that Scotland only gave away four penalties in a match where they were completely outclassed.

Mere numbers wouldn't really be able to tell you so I decided to conduct a test. I had to spend 80 minutes of my life to extrapolate the evidence but it was worth it. Most people use the term 'the referee was only refereeing one side'. You can never be really certain because referees quite often even up the penalty count by the time the match gets to the 80th minute. Quite often the beneficiaries of the referee's largesse have the game in the bag before the 60 minutes are over and then the evening up process begins.

We have to use another method to see if Owens was being fair to both sides. The Welshman is the most verbose referee in the northern hemisphere. He normally tells you exactly what he wants you to do. His instructions are quite specific -- back green, stay blue, away 5 green, release blue 7, roll away green 8. Clear, concise player-friendly instructions. It's great, you are left in no doubt what he wants. The problem was that he told Ireland 'Release Green' and 'Roll Away Green' 35 times to Scotland's 15. His instructional warning of Ireland at the breakdown was below the threshold of conscious perception. If he was policing Ireland more stringently, was it a subliminal act? Sometimes referees are not even aware that they are actually doing it, by it I mean refereeing only one side at the breakdown. If you were completely impartial, surely the amount of instruction/warnings/advice given to both sides would be roughly even given that both sides had near enough an even split of the ball.

A truly dreadful Scotland side should have been penalised 20 times. In a near-death experience last week, I observed the communion of Saints XV playing in heaven give away more penalties than Scotland did last Sunday -- four penalties? Half of them should be jailed for some of the offences they committed in Murrayfield. Owens advised them to play within the rules 15 times, you normally have to do that every 10 minutes. Robbo was fulminating about how we should have been shown a yellow but only after they had been shown three.

The truth is, Ireland when they were good, they were very good, even taking into consideration how awful Scotland were. They couldn't even do lazy running properly. All the Scots were missing was the two crossed swords and a kilt as they sashayed their way back on to the onside line, which was unfamiliar territory to them.

During the Grand Slam year, Ireland completed 75 per cent of their line breaks. For us, or indeed for anyone in Europe, that would represent chilling accuracy. We are pretty far from those levels. Nine line breaks in Murrayfield and only three completions. We were good for another three at least. So we have to convince ourselves: are we inches away from a big performance or did something from our own ineptitude cause us to keep the score down? I don't think so.

When Ireland jammed 16 phases together in the five minutes before the break, it looked like they would be home and dry before tea and crumpets. O'Gara's foray got them to within two metres of the line. Patience and another two busts and Ireland were in. O'Gara got pinged for not releasing. No point in saying it was harsh or unfair. It just wasn't a penalty. It was one of four penalties given when Ireland were two to three metres from the line and about to score from the recycle. Subliminal? Twenty eight points gone on a whim.

It has to be said that Seán O'Brien and Cian Healy's dynamic parlays were practically unstoppable. Healy was very good with the ball. In fact, his front row colleagues all played well, the disclaimer being that the entire front row gave away six penalties. That's pretty good going until you compare it to Scotland's. The Jock front row gave away 100 per cent of their penalties. Can you imagine one game in history where a Scottish rugby union back row -- nay the entire Scottish back row -- did not give away one single penalty? It's a miracle. If Scotland had kept their props off the field, they wouldn't have conceded a penalty.

The key play in this game came in the 48th minute. O'Driscoll encouraged O'Brien onto a popped pass. O'Brien pinballed his way to within sniffing distance of the Scottish line, whereupon Moray Low, Scotland's tighthead, made his play of the day. It is unclear which of Newton's three laws of motion keeps his ears apart, but it is clear that Moray has a special talent.

As O'Brien went to ground, Low entered the ruck from the side. Why bother going through the gate when it's easier to get in from the side? He probably found observing the hindmost foot a little bit of a chore as well. Undaunted by any such restrictions, he came in off his feet and slapped the ball out of Eoin Reddan's hands, all while several Scottish players refused to roll away.

Six penalties in the space of 10 seconds -- more than they had conceded all match. The ball pops loose and Ritchie Gray runs off up the field with it. It is quite difficult to play rugby in those circumstances. It happened another two times before Ireland's spiritual reversal and Declan Kidney's bizarre and unnecessary substitutions. Difficult in the extreme to close that one out with surety.

Ireland will have two SANZA referees for their last two matches. I feel that this will only help their game. I feel too that they will click against Wales because this group want and desire something nearing excellence and so will not permit themselves to have another tediously loose game.

I think their captain too might need to take things into his own hands again. As for Owens, an unacceptable performance -- unsustainably so. There are penalties for poor arbitration.

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