Where does a top-end athlete summon his energy? If you’re at home in Twickenham with new coaches and new faces then a scrum penalty try is a good place to start. I predicted about 15 scrums last Friday and hoped Ireland would negotiate the first five before match fatigue would even out the balance.
There were 18 scrums in total and the penalty try on 58 minutes fired up the English, with bear hug embraces and energisers that coaches could only dream of. The score had been 12-9 and for all their dominance in the scrum this was a big seven points.
It had the opposite effect on Ireland.
Benchmarking can be a dangerous process but league tables do that automatically. Ireland came a respectable third, one ahead of France but any exploration of the actualities will tell you that in a very short space of time Wales have built a Grand Slam team while England in a ridiculously short space have built a culture all can be proud of. There is a cracking case study to be completed at PhD level in explaining how Harlequins and England can turn awful cultures so quickly.
Last week I commented how “nice” it was to see Tomás O’Leary back but questioned Isaac Boss or Paul Marshall’s absence, hinting they’re in better form. In Marshall’s case he is full of top-end energy that could exploit tiring defences, a la Ben Youngs.
It hasn’t been an easy few months for OLeary. That said he came on very early and tried to effect change but lacks the top-end matches and honed skills-set to do so.
I searched for Tom Court as O’Leary carried the ball over his own line in a poorly-judged decision that would not have occurred in former times. What must have gone through Court’s mind as referee Nigel Owens indicated a five-metre scrum to England: ‘You caused the scrum you can go into tighthead; let’s swap’.
Can one isolate the scrum in analysing the individual and the team? Clearly not as so much damage was inflicted on the Irish team. Physically, there was the exhaustion experienced by the secondrows as they tried to buttress their frontrow in position.
“I may go down but I’ll never go back” springs to mind. I can’t recall our pack eking out recovery time between scrums. Dare I suggest the Six Nations affords just one spare prop so had Tom Court stayed down injured the scrum would have drifted to uncontested?
Was this discussed in the stands as it’s an option? What difference Paul O’Connell (or a healthy Mike Ross) would have made behind Cian Healy we’ll never know.
You can come back from a scrum onslaught like this where Ross has the brains and ability to educate his pack on the lessons learned. Apart from Leinster’s revival against Northampton in Cardiff it’s very unusual to experience that in real time. Obviously reducing the number of scrums was a first start, hence O’Leary’s extremely costly error.
Apart from the obvious cheating option of uncontested scrums there is another “half cheat”: I’m very surprised the Irish didn’t pull the classic step back on the hit option. It’s been utilised for years where, under pressure, especially on your own line, all eight hit but immediately step back allowing the opposition to follow through on their hit, with the scrumhalf shouting “early hit, ref” and you get a cheap free kick, which is worth gold to the front five.
Did the Ireland management discuss this and other options at half-time? Maybe that 28th-minute turnover wheel scrum success suggested the English were fatiguing.
The physical was one aspect but the mental is altogether another. We have all been in situations where tremendous work has been done but then something horrible occurs and back into yet another scrum you go. That those horrible things were in the most part avoidable was deeply damaging: kicking out on the full, poor handling and poor utilisation of the back line at crucial times were bad enough, but 21 turnovers suffocated any chances.
I had suggested Irish control over the breakdown would control the fixture. In many ways this proved correct as ruck after ruck, I counted the English speed of recycle. Four in a row oscillated from five seconds to 10 in what was a monumental breakdown performance by the Irish team.
So much so the classic fall guy in these occasions was taken off on 48 minutes in an effort to speed up the game and turn their considerable scrum advantage into more points. Lee Dickson at scrumhalf was the villain and Youngs the hero, especially on scoring their second try.
The real men were the Irish at the breakdown, with Seán O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan and Healy leading the way. Had Ireland not slowed the English flow to over five seconds on almost every ruck over the 80 minutes who knows what the score would have been? Hence a powerful work ethic in terrible conditions from the Irish which highlights the culture is there but the many weaknesses are unfortunately there too.
Neither team lit the stage creatively and you would argue England had the much better opportunity but failed. I counted a grand total of three carries by Manusamoa Tuilagi where Gordon D’Arcy hit him side on and then front on but he did no damage and Ireland’s defensive system deserves credit.
Much of the Irish backline attack struggled to fix the English and precious few opportunities arrived to Keith Earls, who clearly had the pace and feet to evade the monsters in midfield on 66 minutes.
From the breakdown, O’Leary ran sideways before kicking for the corner to the chasing Jamie Heaslip; a poor decision and execution. Heaslip spent much time on the flanks. I’m not sure it is a team tactic but he has been struggling to get into the games and hanging around the wings takes him further away.
The substitutions highlight Declan Kidney’s approach. Both O’Leary and Ronan O’Gara came on very early, and justifiably so. Both have been significant players in Kidney’s career and he trusts them. That clearly can’t be said of Fergus McFadden, a centre employed on the wing when the first-choice outhalf moves into centre, nor of Seán Cronin, given six minutes at the end of the most fatiguing fixture Rory Best is liable to experience.
I fear we’ve seen the last of some great Irish players and the first of an English team with many becoming great.