Thursday 18 January 2018

Neil Francis: Paul O'Connell sometimes overdoes the pursuit for perfection!

Maybe Munster man really is disappointed after every game - but his attitude sums up this team's drive

Paul O’Connell chases a loose ball during Ireland’s victory against England
Paul O’Connell chases a loose ball during Ireland’s victory against England
Ireland's Conor Murray clears the ball upfield despite the attentions from England's George Kruis and James Haskell during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The giddy aftermath gave way to meaningless expressions of sobriety as it normally always does at the post-match press conference. I have never had the balls to ask a question - maybe my line of interrogation would be a little bit nuanced.

"Paul, you must be very disappointed with the win?"

"Yes, to be honest, we thought we trained well in the lead-up to the match and everyone was certain about the game plan and there was huge effort on the park today. There are a lot of tired and bruised bodies in that dressing room - they are just absolutely gutted with the win."

"How about the outlook for the next few weeks? Pretty bleak you'd have to say."

"We're so disappointed to win this game that all we can think of is to get back training on Tuesday and see if we can hopefully find some positives from today's performance."

O'Connell sometimes overdoes the pursuit for perfection. It was interesting that in the press conference they entertained questions about a Grand Slam. They weren't answered - just entertained.

This too was a big match for Schmidt and he permitted a momentary display of satisfaction, which is healthy - I wonder did he ever doubt himself in the lead up. Ireland, unquestionably, were expecting a much tougher match from the English. This one could have gone the other way.

Last year after the Twickenham game you got a sense of Schmidt's understated competitive rancour when his side came away from a 13-10 defeat. Ireland had done more than enough to win and had been more inventive with the ball and yet England had stuck to the task and stayed obstinate to the end.

Schmidt was annoyed with that result. You and I might think you can't win 'em all Joe but the way he is thinking is 'Yes, I bloody well can'.

The quest for perfection manifests itself in many ways. The win and the last-quarter English revival might have masked how good Ireland were.

During the Schumacher years for Ferrari, the German used to set off from pole and 60 laps later, hindered only by lapping back-markers, would cruise through to the line. There were no mistakes, no skids, no fudge in concentration, every chicane negotiated with practised ease. Over-confidence, force majeure or a dozy wheel-changing mechanic were his only natural enemy - it was driving brilliance every time. Some people would prefer to read an anthology on the history of glue than watch perfection because if excellence comes too easy, people think it's boring or an error-free lap is just too sanitised. I don't think so - I could watch it all day.

The Formula One analogy comes into stark perspective when you realise that England got two scrum put-ins all day. A scrum is awarded to your opposition when you make an error - knock it on, accidental offside, take it into a ruck or maul and can't clear the ball etc. To give your opponents two put-ins on their own scrum is cruelty. England's vaunted scrum had big plans in this department. Jonathan Joseph - hero for one championship - would be launched at Ireland's midfield or maybe take Ireland for a walk down the park - show them who is the Daddy. Two scrums - two measly mistakes all day - is this not the country of a hundred thousand welcomes. Ireland went round that track without a mistake. The grass and the ball were wet, and nobody made a mistake.

The pursuit of excellence, though, will have had to wait because Ireland were lacking in some departments. It has been quite a while since Ireland missed 27 tackles in one game. In one of Declan Kidney's better games years ago, Ireland made 99 of 100 tackles - the joke being that whoever missed that one tackle would have hell to pay. Twenty-seven missed tackles? George North and company lunch on that sort of charity.

Once again, Ireland went for 30 minutes without scoring any points or, more importantly, without looking like they would score any points. Ian Madigan has closed out successfully on occasion for Ireland - most notably in Paris last year when Sexton was forced off with 12 minutes to go - to win the championship in another match where Ireland did not score for the last 30 minutes.

Madigan was very loose in the last 30 and could pay a high price if Schmidt decides that, if Sexton has to leave the pitch again, Ian Keatley's sangfroid might be better suited to closing out.

It was interesting too that when Iain Henderson came on with 65 minutes gone that it was to replace Toner who had yet another industrious and highly effective game. Schmidt was not going to touch his out-performing back-row. Jordi Murphy had a really big game. When you are looking for heroes check for zeros. Murphy was Ireland's most effective tackler. Pretty much like the man he replaced - he didn't miss a tackle all day: Zero. It was the quality of his tackling that stood out.

Clamper

Ceding 20kgs to Billy Vunipola, it was the speed of action into the England No 8's feet which brought him down behind the gain-line. Most of the time Vunipola is very good at the second movement and just when you think you have him, he high steps out of the tackle and goes again. Murphy was like a Dublin City clamper and England's bus wasn't going anywhere.

Tommy O'Donnell had a big game too and Ireland's back-row were in concert and were effective. Robshaw, Haskell and Croft - household names - had the experience, bulk, power and reputation. Ireland's callow back-row got a real liking for the task and outperformed; it was a heartwarming display.

England's younger players didn't perform half as well. Joseph and Watson were shackled and George Ford was undoubtedly targeted. He received several 'Welcome to the Aviva' tackles which must have unsettled him. He will be a force in time but his inexperience showed and sometimes footballers' intuition fades to nothing in physical encounters like these.

The gap in understanding came when both sides had a shot to nothing. In the 11th minute, England had penalty advantage tight under the posts. Ford sat back into the pocket and dropped a goal and you don't have to be Jimmy the Greek to know that he played the percentages badly.

An unmissable penalty under the posts means you have a guaranteed 3 points - why go for 3 when you already have 3?

The better and more experienced player goes for 7. A bomb which would land in the Irish in-goal area and give them a taste of their own medicine was the play. Ford hopelessly misread the situation and let Ireland off lightly.

When Ireland went looking for points in the 51st minute and England infringed - Murray knew that a dunk over the top was the only play and, augmented by an enthusiastic chase, Henshaw rewarded the gambit. Seven instead of 3 and that was the game. Ireland way ahead in knowing what was required.

You have to laud O'Connell's quest for perfection. Maybe he is genuinely disappointed after every game. The distinction is evident. We do all hear his words but, more importantly, we feel his attitude.

In campaigns like this there is no land without stone - no meat without bone. He still awaits the perfect game.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport