Tuesday 20 March 2018

Luck on our side in frantic endgame

We made too many errors in the last ten minutes – thankfully, so did the French, writes Neil Francis

Paul O'Connell said he 'was walking around the pitch afterwards and was disappointed with the last 10 minutes' - he was right
Paul O'Connell said he 'was walking around the pitch afterwards and was disappointed with the last 10 minutes' - he was right
Paul O’Connell said he ‘was walking around the pitch afterwards and was disappointed with the 10 last minutes’ — he was right. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Years ago, I watched Aaron Peirsol win an Olympic gold in the 200 metre backstroke. His time was just outside the world record, his own world record. The American needed a personal best to beat the standing world record. In an evolving world these records are transient things, an ephemeral mark of that time. However, gold is gold. Gold is forever.

The poolside interview was perverse. Peirsol, sullen and brusque in demeanour rather than celebrating best in class, explained his despair at not breaking the world record. He was inconsolable. His lack of grace and paucity of winner's etiquette left me thinking, 'Is this guy serious?' On reflection at the time, I settled on the notion that yes he was serious and his standards were so ridiculously high that mere mortals couldn't fathom the breadth of his aspirations.

However, in these matters you should keep yourself to yourself and bid the adoring public the glad tidings of a victory gained with good grace, otherwise the world will think you are a bell end.

One of our champions, Paul O'Connell, stood before the cameras and spoke to the nation after last Saturday's match. The Irish captain had the Six Nations trophy in his hands and a winner's medal around his neck. He spoke, we listened.

"That frustrates you straight away after the final 10. We held out but we could have held out in better fashion. I was walking around the pitch afterwards and was disappointed with the 10 last minutes – we could have closed it out a bit better."

Okay, O'Connell is also a very decent swimmer but surely, in his moment of glory, better to stick to the script and utter some inane gibberish about 'passion and pride and the honour of the boys in green'. But he was right!

Experience teaches only the teachable. This group can advance under that premise. There is enough intelligence and ability to progress.

It is important to acknowledge that while last Saturday's Test in Paris was a spectacle and a thrilling encounter (the nation knows what a defibrillator is for now), it was a long way down in terms of quality and cerebral application. England are a far better side than France and the rugby played in Twickenham was of an infinitely higher level than that shown on the paddock in Saint-Denis.

France put in a prodigious physical effort but were tactically clueless. The French have lost their heritage. Their passing was abysmal, their ability to judge space and put men into it is awful and their propensity for butchering overlaps is bewildering.

In the England game, Ireland were not looking to close out, they were chasing the game. It ain't apples with apples. You have to go back to the New Zealand game in the Aviva Stadium to see if they had progressed, if they had learnt from the horror of losing to the All Blacks in the fashion that they did, to see if O'Connell was right to be disappointed.

One of the things that strikes you about the two games is the similarity of the scorelines: 22-24 in the All Black game and 20-22 in the French game. Two-point margins. When it is that close, very often it comes down to the emotional calm and sangfroid of the winners to separate the sides. The key factor, and this is purely my opinion, is that Brian O'Driscoll spent the last 15 minutes of the All Black game on the bench with his head in a Zanussi spin cycle.

The luminous brilliance of our star player is quite often the difference. O'Driscoll played the full 80 in Paris. You can be certain that Joe Schmidt did not keep him on the field for sentimental reasons. O'Driscoll had nothing left in the tank but an agile mind and irrepressible rugby experience forged in the heat of some of the toughest battles meant that he had to be there when the pressure came. It came and Ireland reacted poorly, but got away with it.

Ireland had played most of the championship with a blend of ruthlessness and resourcefulness, temperance and ambition, patience and hunger, but what sustained them more than anything in the last 10 of the French game was dumb luck.

Ireland made unforced errors and mistakes in the last 10. Silly things like Rob Kearney taking an easy mark but uncharacteristically missing touch. Jack McGrath got pinged for not rolling away. Ian Madigan ceded possession with a kick than went too far so it was unchaseable.

Ireland, with less than five minutes to go, did manage to win possession from O'Connell in the lineout and put together a brilliant 17-phase series. Brilliant if you are supporting the team that are holding on to the ball, but if you are the referee you might have a different view. Here is what I wrote after the All Black game back in November:

'It is very hard to go a dozen rucks without somebody giving away a penalty. Sooner or later they will find one and ping you whether it is warranted or not. Somebody had to take a decision because you knew that Nigel Owens was going to whistle, particularly after he gave a warning.

What would the All Blacks have done? They would have thrown the ball out along the line and taken the ruck on the tramlines. Risky, maybe, in the endgame but it would have broken Nigel Owens' perception that this was a clock-killing exercise. A bit like rugby league with the six-tackle rule – six tackles and you kick. If a referee gets a sense of a side going left and right of the ruck without making progress or, more importantly, looking to make no progress and there is very little chance of competition at the tackle zone, then his natural inclination is to try and even up the game and give it to the side who need to try and score/play.'

When Steve Walsh gave a penalty to France after the 17th phase, you knew it was going to happen. "Sixteen blue going off your feet." Ireland (in green) had gone off their feet in nearly every other ruck so why wait for the 17th phase? Against New Zealand, Nigel Owens let it go only eight phases but admittedly there was a warning. Ireland must know at this stage that referees will award a penalty against the side in possession in these close-out situations. It happens nearly every time – even though Ireland were making forward progress in Paris as opposed to lateral movement in the All Blacks game.

Brice Dulin's penalty doesn't make touch and Kearney's up and under only makes 10 metres and is fielded by Mathieu Bastareaud, who has his own air rights. Ireland have lost their shape defensively now and the ball is moved left.

Ireland have Andrew Trimble on his own against a seven-man overlap. Jamie Heaslip is inside him and Rob Kearney is trailing a little deeper. Seven to one and the French f**k it up! Maxime Mermoz runs a cross-field route, taking out all the extra men outside him. Absolutely criminal. Bastareaud, who was in the line, was burning rubber at this stage and was too exhausted to stay in the line.

Blanco, Sella, Lagisquet and Co would have been rounding the posts with hoopla at this stage. When the French went right they had the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fabien Pelous, Abdel Benazzi, Olivier Roumat would have got the pass away. Pascal Pape? Non! Damien Chouly stood with enough depth not to overshoot and although David Kearney's intervention may or may not have had a critical effect. Pape was just not up to the moment and France failed when normally they would stick a dagger into our hearts.

Dane Coles' reception and pass to Ryan Crotty in the clutch play back in the Aviva against New Zealand had a far higher degree of difficulty as the tackles came in from Ireland, but they executed as you would expect them to after getting a charitable last chance.

The final scrum in Paris was a cast-iron penalty. Ireland got hooshed back two or three metres and collapsed a retreating scrum. It is hard to know how the ball came shooting out so quickly but it was kicked almost directly into Jean-Marc Doussain's hands. Walsh was probably a second away from sticking his hand out when the ball was kicked out into play. Dumb luck. I fancy that Iain Henderson was offside when he made that crucial tackle on Doussain. The gods were smiling on us.

In the heel of the hunt, Ireland were far more precise and clinical in the All Black close-out and maybe you could see why O'Connell would have been annoyed with the looseness in the last 10 minutes, particularly since they had lost a critical match in the last few seconds against the All Blacks. How will they handle the next squeaky-bum situation? Luck is cyclical, and they used a season's worth last Saturday.

PS: Iain Henderson and Jack McGrath had huge games off the bench; watch the last quarter again, astonishing performances.

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