Thursday 18 January 2018

Neil Francis: Ireland-Canada was like a bar room slugger against Jean-Claude Van Damme

Henderson shows that he could be the stand-out performer

Ray Barkwill of Canada is tackled by stand out performer Iain Henderson of Ireland
Ray Barkwill of Canada is tackled by stand out performer Iain Henderson of Ireland
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

If this had been a bar room brawl, Canada would have been represented by a slugger; a big, powerful guy, who would have eyed-up his opposition, reckoned that he could have landed a couple of decent shots, been brave enough to stay the course and wouldn't be ashamed of himself after the fight was over. Ireland, in this instance, would have been Jean-Claude Van Damme - same height, same weight, but just carrying a cutting edge and a mental clarity that his opposition just did not possess.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and yet Canada walked away from the bar chastened but unbowed and not ashamed of the fight they had put up. It was, though, utterly predictable and despite not throwing a punch for 25 minutes of the second half, Ireland breezed into their next scrap in a far better frame of mind and with a soupçon of momentum on the back of a professional dispatch.

It must be stated that there were ten amateurs in the Canadian ranks, representing such Corinthian pillars as Balmy Beach RFC and Prairie Wolf Pack RFC, although slowly but surely their diaspora are finding their mark in professional franchises scattered around Europe. Some of their players have represented Sale, Scarlets, Clermont, Agen, London Welsh and London Irish. They would have been familiar and fully up to speed with the professional game as it is played here and maybe it won't happen in my lifetime, but Canada and even the United States of America - if they get organised - you never know what they might do.

Fifty points to seven represents a reasonable tonking and such is the modern game that Ireland only barely crept into positive territory in terms of time on ball and time in opposition territory. It comes down to an awareness of how to use the ball, how to apply pressure correctly, and being bloody minded when opportunities arise.

Canada played with dogged functionality and, even when they were blowing hard, forced themselves to keep going. Yes they were brave, but they were toothless and quite often the ball was a liability to them. Jean-Claude on the other hand kept on applying body-shots which weakened the Canadian resolve.

The first signs of a skill recovery was the quality of Ireland's passing. Yes there were a couple which went loose - particularly at moments when had the pass gone to hand, Ireland most likely would have scored - but quite a number of Ireland's exports revolved around getting the ball quickly, efficiently and accurately to the extremes of the tramlines. Canada had to follow them all the way there and, as a consequence, teams of Canada's quality will always be open to being probed when the line stretches.

The speed of ball being presented at ruck time wasn't necessarily particularly fast but crucially Ireland managed to transfer it quickly away from the tackle point and these are the body-shots that weaker teams just cannot cope with. Eventually teams run out of steam and tacklers trying to cope with these shots, and, in truth, if Ireland were really bothered they could have put another four or five tries on the scoreboard.

They still haven't managed to fix their wraparound/ball-behind-the-line extravaganzas and on a number of occasions they were still running cross-field - as they did in Twickenham - and the sight of Rob Kearney running cross-field when he should have taken a straight line needs to be addressed and corrected quickly.

Ireland's performance wasn't perfect. Without being under any real pressure, there were quite a number of balls which went directly to touch. Ireland's box-kicking wasn't of Test standard and there were a number of strange absences of concentration with Sean O'Brien and Keith Earls knocking on good passes when it was put into the breadbasket.

Jared Payne, although he had a very good afternoon, might care to admit that his attempted chip in the 67th minute was a little too careless. DTH van der Merwe didn't have to stop as the ball went directly into his midriff and the best winger on the field deservedly got some reward for Canada's endeavour. It was also high farce that the two captains, the two most experienced players on the field, got binned for some play that you wouldn't see in a third E's game. I suppose we could put it down to old age.

You would also question Ireland's fallow period in the third quarter when Canada managed to hang on to the ball and at times applied pressure on the Irish line. All of these attempts were repulsed ferociously as Ireland opted to play without the ball. I always maintain it is easier to continuously apply pressure and keep the pace of the game high rather than throttle back and let the opposition have a go. Throwing the ball around is a lot easier to recover from than having to make big tackles on the fringe, which was the Canadian's only gambit when they got close. That's Jean-Claude for ya.

What is highly encouraging is that now Ireland have eight ball-carriers in their pack and Iain Henderson's edge and hard-nosed driving when he gets into contact, where he always seems to get a few more yards, will present a major problem for all teams that Ireland play against. Yet again Jack McGrath was good and while Healy got involved when he came on, my view at this stage is that Ireland's premier loosehead is only going to get 20 minutes a game.

Sexton looked sharper and the further the game went on the more you could see his range, probing and thinking through how to unpick the Canadians. He came through the game unscathed and came through the only stresses to his corporeal self when he scored his try.

In the NFL, quarter-backs are told by their coaches that if they throw an intercept pass to an opposition line-backer then they are strictly forbidden from trying to tackle him because they are far too important to the team to get injured trying to tackle one of these gorillas. As he collected Sean O'Brien's inside pass and turned on the after-burners it was something he just didn't need to do and he was running at a pace that almost certainly would have tested his hamstrings - an area of his body where he has had trouble recently. He didn't need to score that try yet it was good to show that he is fully fit. He missed the conversion, probably because he was still blowing hard from his exertions.

It was interesting to note too that a lot of Ireland's players were blowing hard at various stages throughout the match.

A match where there were no 'what ifs' and the pitch of the performance was just right with the exceptional Henderson demonstrating that he could be Ireland's stand-out player in this competition. Van Damme indeed.

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