Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland must win last two games by any means necessary

There are plenty of positives to take from the Six Nations as the squad grows and learns

“By the end of this game, Josh van der Flier looked every inch an international openside flanker.” Photograph:  Clive Mason/Getty Images

“By the end of this game, Josh van der Flier looked every inch an international openside flanker.” Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

 

I am enjoying my life after rugby but who wouldn’t want to know what was said in the Ireland changing room to spark that second half reaction? That revival came from someone saying something specific.

I could venture an educated guess who was at the heart of it. And it’s not Joe Schmidt. That alone is hugely encouraging. For all the leaders we have lost – O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien, O’Driscoll even – there remains a core group of men striving to fill the void.

The reaction at Twickenham, initially at least, was comparable to the second half against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup final. It needed to happen on Saturday to inspire a complete turnaround after England owned 62 per cent of first-half possession, while we had just 3 per cent of territory in their 22. Poor English execution and last-ditch Irish defence meant we only trailed 6-3.

I vividly remember returning to the Millennium Stadium changing room, 22-6 down but I can’t tell you if Joe spoke. I know Johnny did. Brian did too. Both struck a chord. The team went back on to the field knowing that all we had to do was our specific jobs and we would win. Johnny certainly convinced us that the deficit was not insurmountable.

This was a different scenario – and Ireland still lost – but it wouldn’t take a genius to presume that Johnny spoke at half-time on Saturday. Rory Best has never been one to just throw words about, especially as captain, so I imagine he also contributed. I’d also like to think Conor Murray is growing into a leadership figure – we certainly see it in his play – but the Munster captain, Ulster captain and the Leinster vice-captain were also in that room. These are leaders that others are clearly willing to follow.

Valuable experience

The three new caps also made this 21-10 defeat a valuable experience. Their performances when exposed to Test rugby give this tough campaign an unquantifiable value long into the future.

More than any other player something changed in Josh van der Flier after half-time. He had been solid up to then, seemingly determined not to give up any penalties over the ball, when he could have been more of a nuisance, but that will come over his next few caps as he begins to trust his instincts from now on.

By the end of this game, van der Flier looked every inch an international openside wing-forward. I’m not comparing him with Richie McCaw, but he plays the same type of game around the breakdown and when it comes to ball-carrying. There’s that same unrelenting engine too.

The timing for his disallowed try was spot on: he ran an ideal arc, straightened at the perfect moment before carrying two men over the line. Romain Poite really should have trusted his own judgment or at least not fully abdicated responsibility by asking the television match official if it was a “try, yes or no?”. I don’t think a single English person in the stadium would have complained if Poite had the confidence to award that score. It was a try.

Stuart McCloskey also impressed me enough to be retained in the starting XV or at the very least the match-day squad for the rest of the tournament. If I was being hypercritical of him – it’s my old position so I can’t help it – he could have dropped and hit better into tackles, making more impact with his 110kg frame, but I think he made the right decisions on wrap-around plays, passed when he needed to, carried when he had to and in the second half he played like an international 12 must.

Second Captains

Lack of organisation

There was, however, a crucial lack of organisation in midfield. Either Robbie or Stuart – or ideally both of them – must take more responsibility if Ireland are to score more tries. By this, I mean overruling calls as they are about to happen because they see space to attack out wide.

An example of this happened on 47 minutes, following England’s restart after Murray’s try. With James Haskell in the sinbin this was the moment to build up a two-score lead before defending with our lives.

Keith Earls caught the restart and jinked outside the Ireland 22. Murray then found Jamie Heaslip who went out the backline to Sexton who passed to Rob Kearney and on to McCloskey, who had positioned himself to run through George Ford. Play had gone all the way over to the right touchline when Murray fed Heaslip for another carry into traffic. That was the moment when the overlap wide on the left was wasted. The centres needed to overcall here.

The ball did go wide on the very next phase with Earls grubbering up the wing and Mike Brown being forced into touch for decent territorial gain, but it could have been much more than that. That’s the learning curve: Robbie and Stuart must be able to think two, three phases ahead despite the ferociously physical and fast-paced events happening in front of their eyes. That’s what being an international centre is all about.

Correct decision

One of them needed to yell at Johnny: “We need the ball now!” Johnny would then call to Heaslip, who doesn’t even have to think, he just passes. Heaslip made the correct decision because he wasn’t given another option. Chris Robshaw and Dylan Hartley were defending very tight with four Ireland players, backs besides CJ Stander, and Earls on the outside. The extra phase gave Jonathan Joseph enough time to get back into position so Earls could only kick.

Currently, Johnny seems to be organising the majority of attacking plays but a second voice, further out at crucial moments, could have opened England’s defence.

There was another opportunity on 68 minutes when Johnny chipped despite an extra green jersey on the outside. Again, a voice from a different perspective and Johnny doesn’t need to think, he just needs to pass. The end result in that situation was Danny Care catching the ball and Ford drilling it into Ireland’s 22 where Simon Zebo had to start again.

Knowing when to do this is a skill in itself. In my first Six Nations (2004) Rog knew not to overload me, he just let me run at defences, but by the time we went on tour to South Africa that summer he was done mollycoddling. I always liked to live in the moment on a rugby pitch, I was an instinctive player who was comfortable playing what I saw in front of me.

“That’s perfectly fine so long as you break the gainline every time,” said Rog. “This is big boys stuff now. If you want to be an international number 12 you must start thinking two, three phases ahead of the play, both for my sake and for our attack to evolve.”

Almost like a golfer reconstructing his most reliable shot, I found this to be a really tough adjustment. Instead of a simple catch and pass/run, I had to figure out my best position to make an impact or run a decoy two or three phases later, and all the while keeping an eye out for numerical disadvantages so I could demand the ball off our forwards (who don’t respond to niceties).

This should never be to the detriment of Robbie or Stuart doing what they do best: beating defenders. If it’s on, you go for it every time but it’s about seeing the opportunities against well-organised defences. Learning that lesson proved the making of me as a player, because while playing fast and loose made me effective from schoolboy level and all the way up to the Six Nations in 2004, come the following season defences had me worked out.

This will happen to Ultan Dillane soon enough: opponents will notice that he has a powerful step into contact and prepare accordingly, but on Saturday he caught us all unawares with a beautiful 15-minute cameo that got him on par with the statistics of players who played the full 80.

He’s clearly a warrior but there is also a brain at work. He ran at the space between players – a subtle difference – that allowed him to break the line. His acceleration into contact also guaranteed quick ball off the recycle. There was a skip pass thrown in there too and he displayed composure well beyond his years. He looks the ideal impact man against Italy and Scotland. We need a few more like him.

Grandstand finish

The story of Ireland in this Six Nations is now largely established and cannot be rewritten. For all the endeavour and honesty in performance, the desired results have not followed.

Billy Vunipola ensured England won this game – Seán O’Brien was sorely missed – while George Kruis’s defensive lineout ensured Ireland could not win this game. There is no point wondering what Paul O’Connell would have done as he has retired but a victory at Twickenham, or in Paris, without O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson truly would have been a remarkable achievement.

And yet Ireland were only denied a grandstand finish by poor refereeing. England are not as impressive as they are being made out to be. Our defensive effort dared them to execute under pressure and they were unable.

I do feel we would struggle to beat them if we played them this week but in that one-off game, for those 80 minutes, there will be regrets. Ireland, for the third time in this Six Nations, got into a winning position but couldn’t take that final leap.

‘Nearly men’

England are unmistakably on an upward trend now – the World Cup can in time be seen as their 2007 moment – but that doesn’t mean Ireland are in serious decline. Not at all. I played in a Leinster side that seemed destined to be forever branded “nearly men” (and a few other less complimentary nicknames) until we beat Munster and then Leicester to win the 2009 Heineken Cup. For ten years we won only one trophy despite a hugely talented squad. So I know all about losing games we could have – and should have – won.

On returning to Twickenham, such a magnificent stadium, I was reminded of the enormity of representing your country. Dillane, Van der Flier and McCloskey embraced that as much as anyone else. Seeing three new Ireland players, all with promising futures, is heartening, even in defeat, but we must beat Italy and Scotland. By any means necessary.

The remaining two matches shouldn’t be seen to be about development, they’re about reaching the base expectation; Ireland have set a tradition throughout this century where the absolute minimum return is two victories in the Six Nations. Scotland have looked a good team at times this year and Italy, not unlike us, have been close to every opponent. I would like to think the experience of the final 20 minutes in our last three matches will stand to us, but we must turn the almost moments into points. That’s the next step for Ireland.

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