Saturday 16 December 2017

Neil Francis: Ireland's mistakes against Wales were symptomatic of the mental malaise

Conor Murray, second from left, and his Ireland team-mates, including Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose
Conor Murray, second from left, and his Ireland team-mates, including Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Well, our dreams and aspirations of a Championship are six foot under in an overcoat of clay. In the face of another chastening defeat our lofty pretensions embarrass us all to the point of reappraisal. There does not seem to be any middle ground with Joe Schmidt’s teams.

They either all play well together or they all play badly together.

Ireland on Friday weren’t awful by any means and, like the Scotland game, had it within them to actually win the game. The frustration comes about from the fact that Ireland didn’t play at the level they projected to beat Wales and their inconsistencies told you once again that their mental preparation may have been good prior to kick-off but it dissipated as soon as they took to the field. A good start is only of value if you maintain it and take advantage of it.

The brain is a funny old organ and as the Ireland squad trudge through the mundane task of packing their gear and being ready in the hotel foyer at a certain time to get ready to go home all of the players will have had time to reflect on the previous night’s happenings.

Wales had been sloppy and criminally loose in the second half against Scotland — hard to reconcile with the sort of conviction and resolve they showed all through the 80 minutes in Cardiff on Friday night. The neuro-transmitters start sending you floods of messages about what and how you should behave against England . . . if you are selected.

Joe Schmidt has the same conundrum as Rob Howley during the week. Will I let their pride give them a chance to recover themselves? Already the Irish squad are going to be in a different frame of mind for the England game — same as Wales were for Ireland. I just thought that Ireland would have been cold-blooded and resolute enough to give the type of performance required to comfortably put a team like Wales away in the Aviva — just do it in Cardiff.

So while the squad head back on the plane they will in all probability have slipped into a different mind-set and will be gearing themselves up for a monumental performance. Pride is important but Championships are really what this team should be chasing.

Before they drum up some murderous intent for their visitors from England, they will have to undergo a video review which the daily blurb will say "will make for uncomfortable viewing".

I am wondering when the day comes where players can’t catch, pass or kick and when you have a perverse situation where all the players can do is smash his opponent so hard you will almost kill him. Reassure me here now — it is a game of skill and ability is it not? Power and athleticism have a place in the game but some of the collisions on Friday night were a contravention of the game.

In a match such as Friday’s we are reminded that rugby union now more than anything else is a contact sport. Horses fall at hurdles and players through contact don’t survive the 80 minutes. You always assume that your key players will last the entire game. Wales won the game because their key players all played well and they all stayed on the paddock.

Conor Murray, right, and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland
Conor Murray, right, and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland

None of Ireland’s key influencers played at the level that you expect them to play at. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were off the park for different periods and while they were Ireland suffered a serious lack of control and they coughed up 15 points as a result of their impairment in play.

Sexton’s yellow I thought was unfair. Wayne Barnes did not referee the breakdown all night and Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton made very little effort to remove themselves from the tackle scene. Nor did they stick their arms in the air and pretend to wriggle their bodies back out of the ruck.

Barnes is an experienced referee and would be familiar with the tackler being held down by the ball-carrier on the ground hoping for an easy yellow for preventing release near the try-line. It was easy to say that Sexton knew what he was doing but the fact is that he couldn’t move. Ten points in 10 minutes seems to be the average return at Test level for a player in the bin.

Whatever about the turnaround on the scoreboard, the mere fact that Sexton is off the park for 10 minutes denies Ireland structure and control. Ireland normally get the ball back from Sexton’s lofted kick-offs into midfield after they concede a score. They were reduced to Simon Zebo hoofing the ball as far as he could into the corner.

Jonathan Davies also played a part in Sexton’s HIA — the knee to the head was accidental but Sexton had a shiner from the impact and eight-nine minutes on the sideline for the HIA.

Davies was himself lucky not to get a yellow for sledging after Rory Best’s try was disallowed. As soon as Barnes awarded a penalty to Wales, Davies came into the ruck and patted Best and Robbie Henshaw vigorously on their heads while they were on the ground and shouted something at them.

Sexton of Ireland leaves the pitch
Sexton of Ireland leaves the pitch

The directive for this sort of behaviour is a reversal of penalty and on occasion a yellow. Well, I suppose it was last year’s directive . . .

Murray’s continuance was a calculated gamble. The medical team and the player himself thought that he was good enough to continue. The two or three lobbed passes and the inability to deal with Rhys Webb in the corner in the lead-up to George North’s second try told you it wasn’t worth a gamble. An extra half-second for a slow pass and the speed and ferocity of Wales’s line-speed should have told everybody that the gamble wasn’t worth it.

In an ultra-physical game, Wales had already targeted Murray when they saw him on the floor — they would have done so with profit until the match ended. It doesn’t look good for this Saturday either.

The diminished presence of their highly influential halves is the only excuse that Ireland can offer. Ireland’s passing game is a long way off its sublime rendition in Chicago. The Welsh were entitled to water their pitch before the game — call it gamesmanship but it did seem to unsettle Joe Schmidt.

It had though little to do with the inaccuracy of Ireland’s play. Tadhg Furlong knocked the ball on three times and Jamie Heaslip twice. The difference between seeing the ball all the way into your hands and taking your eyes off it for a split second and subsequently dropping it is the same set of circumstances where this Irish team are 10 per cent off kilter mentally — it is the difference between catching the ball and being at the right pitch mentally to overcome Wales at home. I’m being generous by saying 10 per cent off!

Speaking of percentages, we saw Heaslip give a sensational performance against France — how far was he away from that level in Cardiff? Even in his average performances Heaslip never drops the ball and he rarely misses tackles.

All those misses were symptomatic of the mental malaise. If Ireland were to win, players like Heaslip would have to play like he did in the French game. It can’t be all put down to playing away from home.

Ireland managed to win all 22 of their lineouts in the French game. They got picked off three times and yet again it always seems to be the ones in the red zone where they lose it. Do they simply assume that just because they are close to the line that Wales won’t compete in the air — just wait for them to get back down on to the ground? Modern lineout play should be geared to be an unfair contest — never let your opponent have an opportunity to contest properly or evenly in the air with you.

Alun Wyn Jones didn’t guess where the ball was going — he knew where it was going and that pick was a criminal dereliction of process by Ireland in the first quarter when Ireland needed to press home a relatively good start. Lazy thinking and sloppy execution!

On a day when marginal calls for Lions places were settled — the Welsh back-row won the battle big time. Tipuric was the best player on the park and his intelligence and anticipation was key on and off the ground and in support of his runners. Warburton may have shaded the tackle count 21 to Tipuric’s 20 but it was the quality and the ferocity of Tipuric’s that made the difference.

The Welsh back-row also played in concert, in unison, in tandem — whatever way you want to say it they played as a unit. I lost count of the number of times they tackled as a triumvirate on Ireland’s lone one-out runners. Somebody has to make a decision on Devin Toner’s ineffectual continued carrying of the ball.

The Welsh resurrection will be a good model to learn from and I still have confidence that Ireland can take England next Saturday — even without watering the pitch! The two costly under-performances against Wales and Scotland now require a fundamental reappraisal of the value and merit of Joe Schmidt’s side.

No changes apart from injury but a radical rethink of the level required to beat England.

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