Ireland were game, but their game management was puzzling
If a week is a long time in politics and judging by the latest opinion polls, two years certainly have dimmed plenty of memories, then in the context of the Six Nations it is also an age. Such is the nature of this competition, momentum and form will often shift dramatically, and suddenly, and you can be sure there’ll be a few more unexpected twists yet.
Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy all experienced dramatic turnarounds in fortune over the course of the first two weekends. Ireland, battered and bruised, both physically and mentally, after Sunday’s defeat, now go to Edinburgh to face a Scottish side revived by their new coaching ticket and a first Six Nations win in almost two years
And what’s more, Ireland will be without at least Jonny Sexton and Simon Zebo, and possibly Cian Healy too. A tricky assignment has just become considerably trickier.
Like Ireland, Italy will be grateful for next weekend’s respite before facing a rejuvenated Wales, who will fancy their chances of staying in the title picture until hosting England on the final weekend.
France will be especially grateful not to be playing again next weekend, although less so as their over-worked players will be wheeled out for Top 14 games.
If ever there was a case of cockerels coming home to roost, it’s the current woes of Les Bleus. However, it is inconceivable France will just plod to five defeats. With those boos echoing in their collective subconscious they will surely front up in Twickenham a fortnight hence, perhaps with five or six changes to revive them as well, with changes at half-back and Wesley Fofana being brought back to his more natural and effective midfield slot.
If they lose again in Twickenham, one can only imagine how angry that will then make them when coming to Dublin.
The Ireland squad and management will also be feeling the heat from outside as well as within. Once again the effort was unquestionable, and there were many good aspects to the performance, such as the scrum, lineout maul and defence.
But management and players will have to examine whether they took too much of an edge off themselves by resting up too much, or if they had the correct mental pitch, given the apparent nervousness in their early work.
But leaving aside the surfeit of handling errors, some of Ireland’s game management and decision-making was puzzling. For example, it was surprising Sexton didn’t have a shot at goal in the eighth minute from about 45 metres out and 15 metres to the right of the posts, instead of pushing the ball just inside the English 22 for a lineout.
Owen Farrell’s second penalty in the 29th minute was from a virtually identical spot and cleared the bar comfortably. Similarly, the decision to run everything from inside the 22 with five minutes remaining looked ill-advised.
But management and team will reflect most ruefully on the 10 minutes in which James Haskell was sin-binned. For starters, shouldn’t there be a policy of not kicking the ball off the pitch against 14 men, affording them both possession and territory, as well as an opportunity to run the clock down? From Farrell’s long restart, with plenty of hang time again, Seán O’Brien was tackled about 12 metres from the Irish line, and from the recycle Conor Murray box-kicked straight to touch on the Irish 10-metre line.
When Ben Youngs surprisingly kicked in behind Keith Earls after just a couple of phases, he also hoofed the ball into touch on his 10-metre line. Once again you’d have thought kicking long would have been a better choice.
A couple of phases later, Farrell kicked into the opposite corner, where Rob Kearney was obliged to concede a close-range lineout – though it seemed Chris Ashton tackled him on the ground. In any event, this led to Farrell making it 9-6 for side entry at the English lineout drive.
Ronan O’Gara’s ensuing restart to just beyond the 10-metre line did not have enough height to make it contestable, and from the ensuing kick tennis, Mike Brown followed up his own punt to earn a very hasty penalty for not releasing against Kearney.
Having taken one minute and 20 seconds over his previous penalty, Farrell ran down another 54 seconds in making it 12-6, and England used up over four minutes in taking three lineouts and two penalties at goal.
After Ireland then went backwards through five phases, O’Gara’s chip ahead was not regained and even then, just before Haskell returned, Kearney kicked the ball into touch from inside his 22 to afford England a fourth lineout in that critical 10-minute spell, during which time Ireland had the ball for about one minute.
Sunday games don’t seem to work at the Aviva, which was anything but as febrile as visits of England have been over the years. One is loath to criticise supporters who spent up to €90 in these straitened times for the privilege of being drenched, and it’s not the first time more lubricated travelling fans make their presence felt, but save for one rendition of the Fields in the 38th minute, the atmosphere was curiously subdued.
The home crowd were mostly sparked into life by renditions of Swing Low and sought to drown it out with boos, but that was also rather typical of their reactive rather than pro-active mood on an anti-climactic day.