Friday 18 October 2019

Neil Francis: Joe Schmidt has to get ruthless as understudies fluff lines

Jordi Murphy of Ireland is tackled by Kurtley Beale of Australia
Jordi Murphy of Ireland is tackled by Kurtley Beale of Australia
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

So the better team won yesterday, certainly the smarter side. Australia had a game plan that upset Ireland, and when the men in green are held try-less you have to consider just why they were unpicked tactically.

You have to give credit to Michael Cheika here: Australia gave Ireland nowhere to go and the areas Joe Schmidt's side revel in were closed off and railroaded in to tactical cul-de-sacs. I have rarely seen Conor Murray kick the ball less from the base of the breakdown or from tight situations. It soon became clear that if Ireland wanted an aerial game they would get one with knobs on.

We often highlight rugby players' prominence in the air and attach GAA high-fielding prominence to them but for all of our heritage and not many of this Irish side played much GAA, and they were outdone by one of the AFL's finest. Israel Folau, as he has been in this year's Super Rugby campaign, was peerless in the skies; Australia would play Ireland's kick-chase but do it better.

So if Ireland were restricted in their kicking game and restricted because positionally Australia were very good in their anticipation of when and where the ball would be coming, they would have to play keep-ball. This normally works against malleable and yielding defences in the northern hemisphere but Australia set their stall out right from the start and their line-speed — though not always legal — was suffocating, and they put in half a dozen 'king hits' on key Irish players in the first 30 minutes.

Australia's tacklers easily read Ireland's tactic of passing the ball in behind and they were up to put pressure on Ireland to the point that it stopped the move two or three metres behind the gain-line.

Ireland managed to dominate the ball — the possession and territory stakes were won 60-40 on both counts — but this is not the key statistic. Ireland got turned over 21 times at the breakdown, and it doesn't matter how well you retain the ball, if you are under that sort of pressure at the breakdown you could dominate possession and territory stakes 80-20 and still get nowhere.

I think David Pocock is a cancer on the game. Yes, I do have grudging admiration for all his abilities and it is great when you have a player like that in your side . . . he had six legal turnovers and three illegal turnovers, and he and his buddy Michael Hooper managed to slow the ball down more than enough to stop any rhythm that Ireland looked like they were beginning to achieve. You have to make special preparations to counter Pocock.

In contrast, Ireland were unable to make a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown and when Australia did get momentum and a run of phases they looked far more dangerous than Ireland did.

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The best player on the park for the Australians was Kurtley Beale at inside-centre. Bernard Foley does the nuts and bolts of game management pretty well but if you are looking for somebody to shake it up, make opportunities for out-field players and distribute accurately, there are few better in the world than Beale, and the Aussies used him to kick as well. Every time Beale got some space he caused damage. That was the game.

In contrast, Ireland's midfield struggled all day. While Bundee Aki may be approaching folk hero status, he is a very one-dimensional player and his lack of vision at inside-centre or his ability to play as a first receiver was in stark contrast to what Beale could do for the Australians. Aki was read pretty easily by the Wallabies and I feel now Schmidt will make the necessary changes here.

Robbie Henshaw will need to be brought in at inside-centre as he struggled when he shot up in the line from number 13. You can't gamble here; when you play the shooter role it comes from instinct rather than a flick of a coin and Henshaw, quality player that he is, got caught cold several times. Garry Ringrose, who was rested, knows the outside-centre role far better and has a far better idea of when to shoot up and when to stay put and drift.

Joey Carbery had an all right type of game. He found out in the hardest possible way that there is no space at this level, particularly when you start, and he never got free to weave some of his magic. The Aussies drifted off him all day. One of the big differences — and it is a key difference — is what Johnny Sexton does for you defensively. Don't underestimate how determined and aggressive Sexton is when he leads Ireland's line up; a lot of it is down to respect and authority and seniority, which Sexton has in abundance.

For most of the game, I had a feeling Ireland were going to sneak this one. They have on more than one occasion won a match when they were second best on nearly every front, and with the score at 9-8 in the 66th minute and Ireland professionally and competently surviving a 14-phase attack near their line, with Pocock of all people knocking on, it looked like this would be one of those days.

The players and the pundits talk about how the game turns on small margins but the game turned on a pretty big margin. Iain Henderson had put in a very decent shift; he had not played in a month or two but still looked up to the task to me. He was replaced by Quinn Roux in the 64th minute and suddenly Ireland were effectively down to 14 men. In the 18 minutes that Roux was on the field he had no carries, he had no clearouts, he won no lineout ball, he had no passes and he missed one of his two tackles. He did absolutely nothing in the time he was on the pitch.

Last season in South Africa we were told that he had been brought for his scrummaging prowess. It is hard to keep a straight face when you are told that, particularly when you look at some of the second-rows who were left behind. You had Devin Toner and Tadhg Beirne sitting in their blazers in the stand. Roux's moment would come in the 67th minute. Ireland had a put-in on a scrum on their own five-metre line. A good strike, a solid platform and Ireland get an exit strategy going through Murray and go chasing some insurance points to build a better score than 9-8 to ensure victory.

The ball is fed in by Murray and suddenly Ireland's tighthead side comes shooting back and Ireland's scrum buckles as it is turned around and a penalty is awarded to Australia. Ireland had their Lions tighthead on that side of the scrum — the best prop in the world, a devastating scrummager; how could their scrum be dismantled in such a fashion? When you have a defensive scrum you get your strike done first and you depend on your second-row to keep the power on so that the scrum remains stable. It would seem that Roux is even unable to scrummage. That should be his sixth and final cap. I do not know why Schmidt keeps picking him but that was the game in a nutshell.

Instead of exiting with their slight lead intact, Foley knocked over the easy penalty and with the spiritual advantage of pushing Ireland off their own scrum ball, the momentum of the game had changed. Australia had forgotten about that 14-phase attack which Ireland had held up and now they were in control of the game to the extent that when Jacob Stockdale gave away a questionable penalty after yet another Beale kick and sensational Folau take in the air in the lead-up, Australia opted for a tap and go. They managed to work Pocock on a great line and Ireland would not be coming back from a nine-point deficit at that stage of the game.

One-nil to Cheika and a response and some tactical changes to come from Schmidt.

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