Tuesday 21 January 2020

Neil Francis: Back to the drawing board for sloppy Irish

Without a set-piece platform Irish had nowhere to turn, writes Neil Francis

Ireland's Sean O'Brien is tackled by Ben Morgan (l) and Dylan Hartley during England's emphatic 30-9 victory in the Six Nations at Twickenham yesterday
Ireland's Sean O'Brien is tackled by Ben Morgan (l) and Dylan Hartley during England's emphatic 30-9 victory in the Six Nations at Twickenham yesterday

It's not a coincidence that three years after 'Bloodgate' Dean Richards makes his long awaited comeback after being in the rugby wilderness.

The English giant took the rap for other people's mistakes and finds himself starting anew with the Newcastle Falcons. Not since the early 1980s when Richards was in his pomp did we see an English scrum dismantle their Irish counterparts to such an extent.

Anyone with even a superficial understanding of the game would realise that a team's sense of surety is based on what it can do at scrum time. Ireland first and foremost are a setpiece team -- if you don't have a setpiece then you got nothing.

I can sympathise with what happened yesterday to Ireland's tight forwards. In the harshest Hesperia's of the soul having to pack down against an opposing unit who mentally have got your number is something that is extremely difficult. It is very hard to undo that torrent of ascendancy once one side claims hold of it. If you were not acquainted with the discourses of this phase of play here is my tuppence worth.

Over the term that Greg Feek has been in charge he has sought a holistic approach, 'everybody scrums', to the way Ireland and Leinster scrum. They have been rarely found wanting and you would give them credit for being able to think on their feet and sort out any issues at half-time. From the first few scrums it was obvious England had done their homework and with the conditions yesterday at Twickenham with a fairly limited game plan England knew they would profit if they applied themselves to the fundamentals.

I felt subtle differences in the way both teams scrummaged -- Ben Morgan for England when he packs down at 8 actually was putting power and energy in from his position and he also looked like he was working hard to keep his second row of Parling and Botha together and tight.

On the other side of the scrum Jamie Heaslip in direct contrast did nothing of the sort and only later in the day when it was too late, or he was told by Rory Best, did he decide to actually pack down. Heaslip of course took the hit when the packs engaged but you could not see any power coming through and Ireland's second row split and were lose as a result of it.

Another factor here is the absence of Paul O'Connell. He is Ireland's strongest scrummaging second row. He also would not have allowed what England were doing to Ireland's scrum yesterday to happen. Mike Ross went down three times yesterday before he went off. I am not sure whether it was ribs or a back injury, either way he was struggling before he came off. I have never seen Best under such pressure and it's rare that you get a combination of missing the strike and your scrum disintegrating -- normally its one or the other. Alex Corbisiero stayed pretty compact and made hay as the right hand side of the scrum went forward.

I'm not just saying this as a former second row but most of the power of the drive comes from the second row. I wouldn't have considered Botha, who is a converted back rower, and Jeff Parling as Olympian athletes but they stayed bound and tight and much lower than our second rows and their endurance of labour paid dividends.

England should have made greater use of this ascendancy as the undeviating steadiness of purpose which is normally a consistent parameter of Ireland's play vanished on the day. I'm not sure about this guy Ben Morgan. He is a powerful runner but he's not much of a footballer but he does give one priceless commodity, he does go forward. His skill levels though at the base of the scrum yesterday were very poor and would not stand up to close scrutiny if you compare and contrast them with his predecessor Dean Richards all those years ago.

Owen Farrell, who confounded me with his maturity and his game management, irrespective of whether he was playing behind a dominant pack, had to direct the game for England despite the vagaries of Lee Dickson's service. In the 54th minute Farrell chipped through from lose play and the ball flowed enough on the water-tabled pitch and it was unsafe for Tomas O'Leary to chance that the ball would travel over the goal line and he had to carry it over. It would be scrum five for England and the end of the match as a meaningful contest.

England got the drive on and Ireland yielded. Nigel Owens, the referee, prematurely blew his whistle for a penalty. The ball had scooted loose just as he was blowing his whistle, Morgan being unable to control the ball, and Parling had shot through to score. Owens went to the TMO. The try was not given but the penalty was awarded instead. England did not relent nor did the crowd and you could tell what was going to happen as an England pack was buoyed by a buzz of anticipation.

England's scrum went forward once again in a controlled fashion. There was no jolt or sudden change in direction and once again Morgan was unable to control it at the base of the scrum. The ball was out and Andrew Trimble was behind his try-line and on-side before he came out and stopped the England No8 dead in his tracks. In a bullshit decision Owens headed for the posts to award a penalty try and that was effectively the end of the game.

Ireland, though, couldn't complain. It probably would have happened at the next scrum.

There were so many errors in this game that you suspected the chastity of the try line would remain intact irrespective of whether there were penalty tries or not. Ben Young's in the 73rd minute finally took advantage of what his forwards were doing in front of him and after another cattle herding when Ireland were yanked off their own put-in, Young tapped and went himself. Ireland were oblivious to any proper form of resistance at this stage.

The All Blacks who might or might not have been watching with one eye closed might just be thinking ahead to June and have thought that we'll scrum these guys to death rather than throw the ball around. There will be one hell of a post-mortem on this one -- without doubt Ireland's worst performance under Kidney's tenure.

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