Wednesday 20 November 2019

Neil Francis: Lack of imagination will cost Ireland the title

Rob Kearney shows his disappointment after the final whistle in Cardiff
Rob Kearney shows his disappointment after the final whistle in Cardiff
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I have only three words to say to Warren Gatland - Je Suis Flora! The fact that he said nothing derogatory in the build-up to the Wales versus Ireland game might mean that the mind games and the sledging are hopefully things of the past and from now on he will let his coaching do the talking.

The faux indignation from across the pond needs to be tempered by the fact that Gatland stated formerly that of all the teams in the Championship, the Welsh hated the Irish the most.

That statement was uttered prior to Ireland winning the Grand Slam in 2009 in Cardiff. The Irish team got on with the job, acknowledging that trash-talking and pre-match posturing is exactly what it is.

My piece prior to the Welsh game last Thursday is worthy of further examination on two counts.

The first was that the Flora reference was first published at the end of January and nobody paid a blind bit of notice to it then.

The second element was that everything I said would or could happen last Saturday did happen.

As a result of this loss Ireland - a good degree more unsure of themselves - travel to Edinburgh, where the competitive dynamic of the Scotland game has changed utterly. . . butterly. Sorry!

A win last week was not outside Ireland's compass. It is acknowledged that they underperformed.

UNACCEPTABLE

The lack of accuracy in some sectors was unacceptable. It can be explained by a number of factors: the pressure to perform, the quantum of the occasion, the home crowd, the vagaries of the away fixture, the drop in quality of performance from our executive (8, 9, 10 and 15).

If Ireland were to win, our halves and full-back would have to play to the level that we expect from them.

It is puzzling too that historically all of Ireland's players seem to be comfortable playing in the Millennium - it has been good for us, a lucky ground even. On this occasion Ireland played like new visitors there.

The key factor, though, was that Wales were uncompromisingly good, particularly without the ball. They are a proud rugby nation and if we thought we could just wander in and plunder a win en route to Murrayfield. . . well.

There are a large number of people who are looking for selection changes. This will not and should not happen. Nobody complained when Ireland won their first three matches.

A narrow loss to a decent Welsh team away from home should not precipitate a change in personnel. I think the squad will be unchanged when announced today.

Ireland will concentrate on making sure that their line-out doesn't implode again when it should have been central to applying pressure on the Welsh - it is the starting point of our maul.

Scotland lock Jim Hamilton has managed to cause problems at lineout time with his anticipatory instinct and his canny experience in this sector. If he imposes himself here and Ireland haven't smoothed out wrinkles, we are in trouble.

The distinction in the Welsh game should be reinforced here. Ireland's losses came not from Welsh pressure but from lack of accuracy.

An under-throw from Rory Best which was crooked as well was picked off by Sam Warburton when it was intended for Devin Toner at the back. Five metres from your opponent's line and the green team about to crank it up - sometimes the safe bet at 2 or 4 is the option. Sometimes it's simply enough to win the ball.

Maybe there was a trick play or one of these quick passages of play where the ball is transferred quickly to another pod in the lineout and the drive goes there as opposed to on the catcher. The fillip the Welsh team got when the 1.88-metre Warburton picked off the 2.08-metre Toner was inestimable and it emasculated Ireland's challenge for the rest of the first half.

We assume, rightly or wrongly, that Ireland will improve their execution in this area this Saturday. Improvement is one thing - ability to improvise is another.

If we want to criticise Ireland - well the red zone is where they lost the game. Wales defended with great resolve and measured calm. Their defence was the bedrock of the win, yet you can't but help feel that Ireland made it easy for them.

Ireland uncharacteristically dominated possession and territory and when they went chasing the game they retained possession with reasonable authority and strung out 30-phase possessions, yet they were predictable and easily marshalled by a willing Welsh defence.

At this juncture of his tenure we know that Joe Schmidt has a no-offload policy. There is a reason for this. Sometimes they are too easy to read and the chance for a turnover is unacceptably high - Schmidt insists on retention of the ball.

Five metres from the line it is almost impossible and too risky to effect a safe offload but a load of that multi-phase took place further back from the five-metre line in Wales' 22 where there was opportunity to get the supporting player away.

Too often Ireland went with the man-out approach off a popped ball - the carrier running at a 90-degree angle - or then worked an unconvincing truck and trailer.

It was utterly predictable and it made it easy for Wales, who didn't have to think twice or second-guess what was going to happen, and as consequence the quality of the Welsh tackling would be of the variety that would knock the dots off your dice.

Repetition of these plays meant that Ireland would recycle further out and a metre back, and they were not good enough or quick enough to recycle the ball that close to the line without using three or four men at a time and in the end they either ran out of ball carriers, space or ideas.

VARY

Never once did they come from deep or vary the angle or even set up a maul close to the line - you don't need a lineout to do it, all it takes is someone to stop, stand up and get players in tight and transfer the ball back. Ireland did try it once but it was in midfield.

Scotland have been lamentable in some of their performances this year, but they will trouble Ireland. They should have been beaten out the gate against England.

Stuart Lancaster wasn't wrong when he suggested that England should have scored six tries against them. If England had managed that, Ireland would be travelling to Murrayfield fighting for second place.

The fact that Ireland still have a very good chance to win the Championship tells you much about Scotland. They stay in the game; whether you can attribute that to luck or to heroic virtue, they are difficult to dispose of.

Their attitude is the same as it was 20 years ago. If they are 21-0 down when they line up for the next kick-off, in their mind the score is still 0-0.

Going to Edinburgh looking for margins is a difficult ask. That is why the competitive dynamic changes the complexion of this fixture. Ireland have goenm from needing a win to pick up a Grand Slam to needing a win with a target score in mind.

Scotland will not be standing idly by. Ireland will have to be really good and particularly at the breakdown. Here the Scots are aggressive and habitually illegal. Yet they only gave away eight penalties at Twickenham. They are either acquiring better discipline or getting even smarter at killing the ball.

Scotland can spend hours holding on to the ball. They might not be able to do anything with it but you'll find that they don't give it back easily and they eat up the clock, denying Ireland opportunity.

Greg Laidlaw is a clever player and a good game manager, and Stuart Hogg is dangerous in space. Their pack is big but Ireland if on form should subdue them.

But translating possession is going to be the problem: four tries in four games tells you that. I can't see Ireland winning by more than 10 points. England are in pole position. They have been the best attacking side in the competition and with 11 tries scored already they should seal the deal. Swing low-low then!

Irish Independent

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