Friday 24 November 2017

Neil Francis: Redemption on menu but meat and two veg fare won't beat England

Ireland's Peter O'Mahony has his jersey held by Owen Farrell last year
Ireland's Peter O'Mahony has his jersey held by Owen Farrell last year
If Andy Farrell can come up with the right defensive strategy and convince his team, Ireland have a chance on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

With your permission I would like one last moan before we attend to matters at the weekend. This refereeing business is a very subjective process. Wayne Barnes, we thought, had a good game last Friday.

Certainly you could not argue with a 10-4 penalty count against the Welsh - or maybe we should be looking further than the penalty count and just penalties awarded. Fifteen minutes have gone by in Cardiff when CJ Stander manages to latch onto a ball in midfield on the left. The Munster back-row has some pick-up in speed even from a standing start and he nonchalantly disposes of Scott Williams' tackle and is away down the left.

Leigh Halfpenny gets him after a 35-metre run as the tricky offload to Simon Zebo connects but the Irish winger is brought down by George North. The Welsh giant would go on to score two tries that evening - one which he scored five minutes later when he should have been in the bin. North, when he made his tackle, just lay there at the tackle zone.

Ireland were three-and-a-half metres from the Welsh line. He made no attempt to get away from the ball or get back on to his side of the ruck as Ireland's support players went for the quick release.

From the moment Zebo went to ground it took seven seconds before Murray got the ball away. One potato, two potato...

Most professional rugby players can chase back 40 metres in less than seven seconds. When Murray got the ball out the Welsh were lining up their targets on their try-line. North had done well. Two tries scored and one try saved. The Digger Barnes had spotted it and had his arm out "just a penalty" he said on the ref-mic. That's a bit arbitrary, is it not?

Barnes clearly saw what happened because he awarded a penalty for it. A player kills the ball for seven seconds after a clear line-break just metres from his line and there is no yellow. It must be new directive from World Rugby.

Two minutes from time in the first half and Johnny Sexton puts in a super tackle on Jonathan Davies one metre from the line. My view, as stated on Sunday, was that Sexton was held in the ruck by the ball-carrier and couldn't get out of the ruck - either way, the ball did not present to the Welsh for a quick release.

The Digger sees what happens and whistles for a penalty. After letting North go free, Barnes shows Sexton a yellow for not rolling away. The thing that got me was that Barnes had his hand in his pocket for the yellow three seconds after the tackle. Was our referee operating below the threshold of consciousness here?

There is no point in me calling for consistency here because there never is any - but that call and the non-call was the match.

Moan over, on to England.

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I would say that Darwin would have been fascinated with the game of Rugby Union and body changes and evolution of its players over the last century. "It is not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent that survives, it is the one most adaptable to change."

Ireland must adapt to the changed set of circumstances that pertain in the lead-up to this match. A dis-spiriting display against Wales - where does that leave the team mentally? Does their resolve crumble or increase after watching England eviscerate the Scots? Certainly desperation should not be used as a motivational tool or factored into a game-plan.

Ireland beat England 19-9 two years ago at the Aviva - lest we forget that was for a tenth straight win and major step towards a second Championship. The bloody Taffs did us again in Cardiff in 2015 en route.

There will be over 20 players named today who played in that game who will play on Saturday. Both teams/squads have progressed since that match but England's graph has very few kinks in it. Ireland have also got better as a team - if they had not they would not have garnered that 2016 SANZA triple crown. Despite the despondency after two under-performances, Ireland always seem to play better against teams that they perceive as being better than them.

The chilling thing about England is the quantum leap in their skill-set. Their passing under pressure has become very good. Their conversion rate of chances has also been impressive - something Ireland have been singularly unable to do this season. The press like using the term 'butchered' chances but Ireland's failure to connect is more down to a lack of composure in the last third of the pitch than a team of klutzes squandering opportunities.

Ireland's passing game has regressed a tad since Chicago - they need to sharpen up in this area. Ask yourself the question: would Ireland have scored a try exactly like England did from that very poor Jonathan Davies clearance in the Welsh game - if Sexton, Henshaw and Zebo were the players involved instead of Ford, Farrell and Daly?

Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile

Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, George Ford, Ben Youngs and Jack Nowell all played two years ago in the Aviva and were made to look ordinary. It now falls on an Englishman Andy Farrell to make his countrymen and his son look ordinary. It is a unique test of intellect and, I suppose, of allegiance.

England's fluency was really impressive last Saturday. Their ability to hold the line to make room for a trail-runner was excellent and their inter-passing was almost telepathic. The Scots were a disorganised and discouraged rabble even in the first half - yet they had something real to play for - a Triple Crown and a Championship. Now that Ireland have no putative Championship to win or points spread to achieve, maybe they can just concentrate on winning. No pressure? When is there not pressure in an England game in Dublin!

An immense performance on the gain line so is required - trust and intelligence being far more important than bravery and doggedness. Ireland will make their tackles. It is far more important to make the right tackle and just as important maybe not to make a tackle at all - trusting that your team-mate will be certain of bringing down his man so that you can cover their support runners. If Andy Farrell can come up with the right defensive strategy and convince his team, Ireland have a chance. It is a huge game for him! Ireland were held tryless last Friday for the first time in four years. I reckon Ireland will need at least three on Saturday. Scotland got three but needed three times that. Ireland will do one of two things - they will do as they did in Chicago, they will simply hold onto the ball and go wide or they will replicate the game-plan of 2015, a territory-based aerial game where every ball was sent into the English 22.

Either strategy probably won't be enough and Ireland will have to be more inventive and audacious than they have been in quite a while - and even then it won't be enough. Adapt, change and keep England guessing and if they are expecting an ambush or a radical change of emphasis - give it to them! If Ireland play a meat and two veg type of game, they will get badly beaten.

A few weeks ago at the Aviva - the French certainly let themselves be heard and I suspect the English will travel and be noisy.

The Aviva was curiously devoid of any atmosphere that day. If we are to learn from the Welsh resurrection - their team despite huge criticism got an enormous lift from the crowd. The Welsh fans did not turn just up to watch!

The nation expects that the team do a whole heap more than just give a good account of themselves.

Irish Independent

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