Friday 20 April 2018

Eddie O'Sullivan: Ireland must heed stats' danger signs

Eddie O'Sullivan

It is, I believe, six years since Ian Dowie introduced the expression 'bouncebackability' to the vocabulary of English football.

The then Crystal Palace manager embroidered a post-match interview for Sky Sports with a 17-letter concoction that, he believed, best captured the resilience of his team.

Soon, the Sky Sports show 'Soccer AM' began a campaign to have the word admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary. It hasn't happened yet, but -- based on their campaign -- it did gain entry to the Collins Dictionary in 2005.

It seems to me that Dowie should be the go-to guy now when looking for an apt description of Ireland's dramatic victory at Twickenham last Saturday. As predicted, it was always going to be a tight game, but Ireland showed extraordinary resilience to beat a very pumped-up England. You could say they exhibited 'bouncebackability' in abundance.

No question, they found inner strength from a number of things. Like being Grand Slam Champions. Like having beaten England in five of their previous six meetings. Like having an experienced spine running right through the team.

Yet, to some degree, the victory defied logic too. Actually, the official match stats all but beg the question: how on earth did England lose? After all, they had 22 set-piece possessions, almost twice Ireland's number. They conceded a paltry six penalties to Ireland's 14. In terms of ball possession, England had almost 35pc more time on the ball and that they passed that ball 140 times to Ireland's 58.

These figures suggest that Ireland should have been blown away by their hosts. Of course, they also tell us that statistics do not win games. Ultimately, Ireland's efficiency and accuracy in execution -- basically their skill -- got them out of trouble. And Ireland were by far the more skilful team.

Had we enjoyed the same volume of possession England did, I suspect we would have had the game won by half-time. We created four line breaks and scored three tries. England, for all their possession, created a miserable two line breaks. And I think it's fair to say that the single try they scored was dubious.

The tackle count also spoke volumes of a difference in quality. Ireland missed one out of a hundred made, whereas England missed seven out of 37. Basically, England huffed and puffed all afternoon, producing very little. They looked an ordinary team, unable to convert possession into pressure. The remainder of their Six Nations programme looks certain to ask pretty uncomfortable questions of Martin Johnson and his team.

Ireland currently exist on a different level when it comes to efficiency and execution. Take the turnover we won in the fourth minute for Tommy Bowe's opening try. England were gun-shy at their own ruck and paid the price, Ireland quickly moving the ball wide and Jonathan Sexton's inch-perfect grubber kick seeing Bowe leave Lewis Moody like a drowning man for the simplest of touchdowns.

The second try was Ireland just flexing their muscles a few metres from the English line. They pounded the white shirts, debilitating their defence to the point where England were left with just two players defending a 20-metres short side. If Churchill defended the skies over England that badly during World War II, Hitler would have been in London in time for supper! I suspect the England defence coach, Mike Ford, will have lost some sleep over that one.

Finally, Bowe's match-winning try was straight off the training field, a carbon copy of the try that JP Pietersen scored for South Africa in the second Test against the Lions last summer. It is always a huge psychological lift for a team when a pre-planned move comes off to perfection. and this was such a case.

As with our victory at Twickenham in 2006, Ronan O'Gara's conversion was crucial too as it left England having to score a try to win the game.

The victory puts Ireland back in championship contention though, clearly, France remain in the box-seat. That said, Declan Kidney will know there are some issues that need to be addressed.

The concession of 14 penalties is usually enough to condemn a team to defeat at this level and I wouldn't fancy Ireland's chances against Wales if that degree of indiscipline is repeated.

I would also ask the question: how did England end up throwing into 19 line-outs when we only threw into six? In other words, what part of out game plan meant we put the ball out of play so much compared to the opposition? Again that sort of set-piece imbalance could be problematic against a team with more ambition than England.


My gut feeling is that those kind of stats would be catastrophic against the Welsh who, despite their Jekyll-and-Hyde performances so far in this championship, have an ease of movement with the ball that can cause problems for most defences in the world.

Sexton's poor place-kicking performance is also a worry. A 20pc success rate in a Test game just isn't good enough, regardless of the conditions. I certainly see O'Gara coming back into contention to start.

Finally, there has to be some concern about Brian O'Driscoll. Despite the reassurances coming from the Irish camp, that was an absolutely sickening knock to the head he took from Paul O'Connell's knee and I would be surprised if there's not some kind of question mark over his availability for next Saturday. Watching him try unsuccessfully to get back to his feet, he had the look of a prizefighter about to be counted out.

Brian is as tough a competitor as I've ever come across and would have been desperate to stay on, especially at such a crucial time of the game. But it was quite chilling to see him in such a distressed state.

No doubt, numerous cognitive tests will be carried out over the next few days to ensure he is 100pc and he will be given every opportunity to be declared fit. I sincerely hope he makes it too. But the problem with a head injury is the potential effect of him shipping another knock next Saturday.

A second head injury, if he is not completely recovered from the first, can be extremely dangerous. For that reason, I'm sure they'll be monitoring him very, very closely. It goes without saying that his absence would be a huge blow.

The chance is there for Ireland to close out the final two games now and finish the championship with a Triple Crown and, possibly, a second successive championship.

Their 'bouncebackability' has put them in a good place.

Irish Independent

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