Tuesday 19 March 2019

Turns out The Lip was right: Ireland are turgid

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during squad training
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during squad training

It had to be him didn't it? Of all the gins joints, in all the world, he had to walk into ours. He had to tell us what we knew deep down, what we knew and didn't want to hear. Not from him at any rate.

Not from the Leicester Lip, the tormentor of Munster, the man who stuck in the knife with his shimmy and try against Munster in the 2002 Heineken Cup final. We all remember the 'Hand of Back', but it was Austin Healey who delivered the coup de grace that Cardiff afternoon.

In his Daily Telegraph column, responding to comments by New Zealand coach Steve Hansen about the quality of the Six Nations, the former England back stated:

"Ireland have led the way pursuing a style that is very effective, but is aesthetically pretty turgid. But they have a perfect record and will argue winning is the only entertainment their support needs."

Hardly a stinging rebuke and we'd argue a pretty accurate assessment of where Ireland were even before you take into consideration the defeat in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

It's just that coming from him of all people it rubbed a lot of Irish people up the wrong way. It certainly seemed to rub Paul O'Connell - who started alongside Mick Galwey in the second row in that famous final - up the wrong way.

"I think he's wrong," he stated baldly and boldly claimed that Ireland wanted to play rugby against the Welsh.

We take the big man at his word there. Ireland did want to play rugby and he more than did his fair share in driving the green machine forward, it's just that Ireland lacked the wherewithal to do what they wanted.

You didn't have to be a rugby savant to figure that much out. All you had to do was open your eyes and see. Ireland bished and they bashed and they boshed. They huffed and they puffed and they failed to blow the Welsh house down.

There was very little invention or variation in the attack. They'd take the ball full on into the tackle. They'd go to ground and ruck and begin all over again. At one stage in the second half they went through thirty phases in an attacking move.

The control it takes to maintain an attack over thirty phases is hugely impressive, it's a testament to the coaching of Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss and, dare we say it, to Shane Edwards and Warran Gatland.

The Welsh defence was immense and, yet, it's fair to say that Ireland played right into their hands. In each and every one of those phases Wales knew exactly what to expect and, while Ireland almost made a break through once or twice, they had it covered.

Had the Irish offered something a little different, gone wide, occasionally hit a skip pass, attempted guile over sheer brute force then, maybe, just maybe, they might have stood a better chance of getting over the line.

The stats for this game are quite remarkable. The Welsh tackled 250 times over the eighty minutes with a 91% success rate. The Irish, by contrast, were forced to tackle just 105 times (with an 84% success rate).

The Irish claimed 64% possession with 66% of territory. They broke the gain line on 188 occasions (Wales less than half that with 92) and made 415 metres (Wales managed 163).

By any margin - bar the scoreboard - Ireland bossed this game. That they couldn't do more with all that territory, all that possession, all those carries and metres gained, is a little bit extraordinary.

Extraordinary and not at all surprising. Let nobody say were weren't warned. Healey wasn't the only one to raise the alarm bells, we simply chose not to hear that which we did not want to hear.

As long as Ireland won who cared what style of rugby they employed? Fair enough and yet when plan A didn't go according to plan - Jonny Sexton had an off day, the line-out completely failed to function, the Irish lost the rolling maul close to the line as an attacking option by and large - and plan B didn't look too hot either.

With about fifteen minutes on the clock and the Irish chasing the game Eoin Reddan took a quick tap and go penalty following an infringement by Toby Faletau. As the ball went into contact the Irish looked to have numbers outside.

Tommy Bowe stood there frantically waving his hands from side to side, begging for the ball. It never came his way. With Reddan - who brought more pace and pep to to the Irish game at ruck time - not in a position to clear it out it took an age to emerge and then it was knocked-on by Cian Healy.

It doesn't get more frustrating or, indeed, emblematic of the problems Ireland now face, than that. We're probably being too harsh here and the entire country has probably over-reacted to a single defeat - the championship is still on and despite all we've said here Ireland are still just about marginal favourites to take the title.

To be in that position at all following Brian O'Driscoll's retirement and Gordon D'Arcy's fade from view is a genuine achievement. The loss of those two stalwarts probably explains too why Ireland are just a little bit turgid.

Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are good players - and Henshaw might even be a potentially great player - they're just not (yet) in the same league as their immediate predecessors.