Saturday 25 November 2017

George Hook: Latest triumph of organisation can't mask real concerns

Ireland’s Sean O’Brien wraps his arms around the legs of France’s Wesley Fofana during Saturday’s Six Nations clash
Ireland’s Sean O’Brien wraps his arms around the legs of France’s Wesley Fofana during Saturday’s Six Nations clash
George Hook

George Hook

The romance of sport was notably absent on Valentine's Day in the Aviva. Commentators searched their thesaurus to arrive at battered, bloody, bruised and brave where in a previous era they might have talked about silky, skilful, space and speed.

Ireland survived an intense physical examination in a match full of positives, but with worrying failures which would mean a defeat to England in two weeks. Incredibly, Ireland lost almost every statistical confrontation to France.

They had less possession and territory, failed to make a single line break and made vastly more tackles. This team defies conventional assessment because it is superbly organised, with high morale and a winning habit.

Johnny Sexton delivered an incredible performance, despite being battered almost insensible by Mathieu Bastareaud, leaving the Irishman looking at the banquet last night like he had just done 15 rounds in the ring.

Despite the targeted attack, despite the long lay-off and despite the stitches in his eye, the Irish number 10 delivered a near-flawless performance.

Sean O'Brien also exceeded all opinions by lasting 80 minutes, even if he was not at his best. Like Cian Healy, this was about game time in the bank.

ORGANISED

While the crowd would have left the arena satisfied that a win is a win, there were worrying features. England have a better scrum, are immeasurably more organised and have a more creative back-line than France.

Philippe Saint-Andre's stubborn refusal to use Morgan Parra until all was lost was there for all to see. The Clermont scrum-half marshalled his resources brilliantly and Ireland were on the back foot. Saint-Andre's lack of organisation was further demonstrated as he allowed the hapless Camille Lopez take the vital kick when he had the trusty boot of Parra to depend on.

The latest news on Jamie Heaslip is not good and his championship may be over. A yellow card was the correct decision by Wayne Barnes, who got few things right on Saturday. It is easy with the benefit of repeated slow-motion replays to make the wrong decision.

A real-time picture gives a completely different feel for an incident. Pascal Pape was lucky to escape because one just assumes that cynicism is rife in professional sport. If it was a cheap, sly shot, then the there is a mismatch between crime and punishment. Heaslip may be out for six months, while Pape received 10 minutes in the bin. The citing commissioner may take a different view.

Rugby is now unrefereeable and Barnes does nothing to improve the situation. Saint-Andre was upset after the game and I suspect that Joe Schmidt would have been likewise, had he lost. The problem is that in Gaelic football and soccer, it is obvious that an offence may have been committed and it is just the interpretation of the official that is the issue.

In rugby, nobody has the slightest idea whether the penalty was justified. The referee's signal explanation merely adds fuel to the discussion.

Referees are now materially affecting the results of games and are just another headache for the world governing body, reeling from problems.

Rugby is facing its most difficult time since William Webb Ellis first ran with the ball at Rugby School. The dreadful, but completely accidental, collision for Mike Brown is unlikely to be concussive, but to the watching 10 million, it was just another example of the increasing dangers of the game. Similarly, Bastareaud's head making contact with Sexton's face, while legal, hardly encouraged mothers to send their sons out on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

This Six Nations Championship is now more than ever about the coaches. England and Ireland are the products of outstanding, if conservative, coaching. The attack plans of both countries are predictable, but England are better because they have superior players in midfield.

Scotland are improving under Vern Cotter and could be a significant banana skin for Ireland in the last game. Meanwhile, there is a distinct sense that Warren Gatland has shot his bolt despite having a very good squad. Jacques Brunel has an impossible task at Italy.

Even if Ireland win in a fortnight, there will be two very difficult tasks to follow. Just when there was light at the end of the injury tunnel, Schmidt is dealt a body blow about his number eight. The injury statistics of 30pc of squads injured at any one time demonstrates how injury, rather than coaching or talent, can determine the success or failure of teams.

Sexton is now a leader amongst a team of leaders. France will bemoan their luck at not having similar. With the benefit of home advantage, we will go to the Aviva in good heart, even if there will be a worrying voice in our head.

Remember the scrum.

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