Sunday 15 September 2019

Soaring towards World Cup but Schmidt must fix costly flaws at scrum and lineout

Israel Folau, Australia, prevents Simon Zebo, right, Ireland, from collecting a crossfield kick and scoring a try
Israel Folau, Australia, prevents Simon Zebo, right, Ireland, from collecting a crossfield kick and scoring a try
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The nation basks in the reflected glory of its sporting heroes. Katie cruised and the rugby team out-performed their opponents yet again. Life it seems is good.

Your annual water charge is cheaper than two seats in the Aviva and a few pints. After the fare on offer nobody is grumbling.

Well, Joe Schmidt and Chris Henry did have to go for surgery. Leinster had a really sloppy day out in Treviso. Anything else? Luke Fitzgerald got injured in the warm-up! Everything else was good.

After Saturday's Test both coaches were suffering from irritable coach syndrome. Cheika was intermittently cantankerous and he had a right to be: Australia really should have won the game .

If Joe had a quibble, it really was a secondary issue - Ireland made a lot of mistakes and lacked certainty and precision in their execution - but they won. They too were unlucky in some respects - there were some outrageous slings and reversals in fortune.

It is hard to win a game when you are literally man-handled at the breakdown. Australia really flourished here even though they turned the ball more than Ireland. Speed of action and reaction into the breakdown did discommode Ireland.

Australia more often than not gang-tackled Ireland's runners and were able to sustain it for long periods.


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One example of this was in the 20th minute: from a lineout a metre short of half-way, Australia tackled Ireland all the way back to the 22, whereupon Conor Murray, trying to retrieve the situation, threw a horror pass to Johnny Sexton, who barely recovered and shanked his relieving touch-finder laterally in his 22.

It was pure Cheika. Down on the scoreboard, just tackle your way back into the game.

Ireland struggled at tight too: - Rory Best had five turnovers at line-out time; not all his fault but Ireland can't keep doing this.

The desperation at scrum time can be alleviated by Jamie Heaslip scrummaging properly.

Heaslip doesn't pack down between the blindside wing-forward and the left-hand-side second-row anymore. He packs down between the two second-rows, which every No 8 in world rugby is obliged to do, otherwise their pack are pushed off the ball.

Every time Ireland's scrum got into trouble it was as a result of Heaslip taking his head out of the scrum and subtracting 18 stone in weight and the corresponding amount of pressure.

That means as well as your hooker not being in a position to withstand a heave because he has just adjusted to strike the ball, your No 8 at the base of the vortex isn't scrummaging either. Eight against six - the six-man scrum will buckle or go backwards.

Heaslip will in future have to trap the ball with his left foot and move it to his right foot without taking the power off at scrum time. Disengaging, taking your head out and trying to feed your scrum-half is only going to put you under pressure. If Murray wants the ball he should pick it from the base himself. Solid scrum first - any other thought second.

That Australian scrum isn't one that would make the knees wobble. Since when did James Slipper become a macho scrummager?

A pretty average Australian pack minus David Pocock, Wycliffe Palu, Stephen Moore et all gave Ireland a tad more than a serious examination. They were brilliant at cheating at the breakdown.

Lazy running has become so obvious that it is pinged straight away - a gormless gorilla runs back to his side between the pass corridor of the scrum-half with his hands in the air.

Australia managed to get their men at the breakdown past the ball but the retreat back to their side would come back through the ruck - casual, natural, no hands in the air and they got away with it all day.

Sometimes you could see some of the Irish ruckers run in and clean Michael Hooper and Ben McCalman from two metres on Ireland's side to three-four metres on to their side. England will pick it up. Referee Glen Jackson didn't.

They didn't get pinged enough at the breakdown despite Cheika moaning about 'strange penalties' which Australia conceded.

The anomalies in Jackson's game were startling and all of his errors and omissions against Ireland were major calls.

Slipper should have had at least a yellow card, and probably red, for tackling Rob Kearney in the air early on.

Bernard Foley's try was a farce too. Whatever about the mechanics of the pass, the scoring action was illegal.

Rhys Ruddock really should have done far better with his tackle on the Australian out-half. A head-on tackle on a player that is five or six stone lighter than the strapping wing forward - Foley should have been emptied and knocked back five yards.

The net result was that he was felled short of the line with no momentum. He did not ground the ball over the line and in the time it took him to think about rolling the ball over the line it was a justifiable penalty for playing the ball after the tackle. Too late! Player tackled on ground, ball on ground, one second, two second, roll the ball - penalty Ireland.

Our action picture of Israel Folau and Simon Zebo on this page doesn't really capture the moment. You really do have to watch the action again on television.

This was the last play of the first half. Ireland already know they have a penalty for Australia pulling down at the line out. Sexton assessed his options. It was special. Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.

Zebo didn't have to think, he knew where the ball was going. The kick was so brilliantly positioned that all Zebo had to do was catch it in mid-flight and his momentum would take him over the line. You could not take into account the freakish athleticism of Folau and his dexterity and what seemed like a four-foot jump into the air.

As the ball went past his field of vision, Folau was forced to arc and try and take the catch one-handed and blind. The great ones can anticipate the trajectory of the ball even though it eludes their field of vision.

Folau's freakish natural ability took the ball out of Zebo's bread basket with a wondrous one-handed catch. But Folau's left hand was engaged in keeping his balance. If he had gone with his two hands he would not have gotten close to the ball and Zebo would have collected and scored.

Folau did not complete the catch. The conclusion to this wonderful piece of daring was a one-handed knock-down of a certain try. Penalty try and a yellow card.

But Jackson took the view that nobody else in world rugby could have timed his jump well enough, had the athleticism to jump that high and follow the ball blind behind his head and probably recognised that Folau was genuinely attempting to catch the ball one-handed.

Anyone else and the quality of the kick would have beaten them. Instinctively Folau did intend to catch the ball one-handed. But you can't rule on what you attempted to do. There was no intent on Folau's part to slap the ball forward and prevent a try but that is exactly what he did and you can't grant licence to exceptionally talented players. Penalty try - yellow card.

There were so many variables but the truth is the match came down as it nearly always does to kicking. Foley missed two easy conversions and that was the game.

A game where there were lots of tired bodies, bumps and bruises, concussions and cuts. Cheika, though, will confirm that the only pain in rugby is regret. He really wanted the win. We will hear more from him and his team.

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