All the talk since the weekend has been about player safety and the huge physicality and even brutality we saw on Saturday. It’s been about Johnny Sexton’s eye and Jamie Heaslip’s back. That should have been a red card for Pascal Papé, by the way, no doubt about it.
But when all is said and done on those topics – and they're important, for sure – the one thing that sticks out about the first two games of Ireland's Six Nations is how dull they have been.
These are bad games of rugby to watch. There’s no getting away from that fact. In both Ireland games so far we have had to watch teams going out trying their very best not to lose rather than trying to win. Lots of shadow-boxing, lots of eyeing each other up at arm’s length and nobody going for the kill. And it has made for rugby that is not easy on the eye.
This is what happens. If I was a player in the Ireland squad at the minute, I wouldn’t be playing any different to the way these guys are. I would be going out in each game building a performance bit by bit, working the game plan so we could build a score – three, six, nine. Keep building phases, doing the simple things right, work, work, work until you force a try. That’s what you have to do because that’s what international rugby is about.
The Ireland players would have sat in the dressingroom afterwards on Saturday feeling a bit flat. That might sound nuts after a win over France in the Six Nations but players know the game better than anyone. They came off the pitch knowing that it was a day for taking the result rather than the performance.
There was none of the buzz that comes from a win full of positivity, with a couple of tries off training ground moves. That’s what gives you the enjoyment of the sport and the momentum to move onto the next game knowing there’s something happening here. Ireland’s win on Saturday was totally professional, very disciplined, no mistakes. Good for them.
But it’s not much fun to watch. I’m not blaming Ireland here – this is the case in a lot of rugby now, especially at international level. More and more you see teams going through the motions of building phase after phase, kicking for territory, defending the opposition lineout high up the pitch, playing for a mistake from the other team.
That’s all grand as long as you’re winning. And the very fact it was Ireland versus France in front of a full house on Saturday meant it was exciting near the end because France still could have drawn level with a converted try. But even now, with Ireland unbeaten since the England game last year, you’re starting to hear a few people complaining that Joe Schmidt’s game plan is very basic.
I think that's missing the point though. We've seen plenty of Joe Schmidt teams play exciting rugby so we know it's not a matter of him being stubborn and only wanting to play the game in a dull way. What I think people are missing out on is the pressure Schmidt puts on players not to make mistakes.
That, to me, is the mark of a Joe Schmidt team. No mistakes. Total accuracy. When he was with Leinster, he had weeks and months and seasons to develop elaborate schemes and moves but his starting point was making no mistakes. We can say he’s been with Ireland for 18 months but really, as an international coach, he’s had them for at most five of those months – two Novembers, one and (almost) a half Six Nations and a summer tour. You have to start from somewhere.
And you have to win matches. Joe is not sending his players out with instructions not to try things. There is a huge emphasis in the squad to do the simple things that will gradually push you towards a win. Big commitment at the ruck. Ferocious kick-chases. Choke tackles.
It’s not about being conservative. It’s about being safe and secure. It’s about not giving the other team a chance. England have only conceded six points to penalties in two matches. Ireland have only conceded nine. Wales and France have conceded 18, Italy 21 and Scotland 27. Ireland and England are disciplined in front of their own posts. It’s not very exciting but look who are on top of the table?
No mistakes. Ireland haven’t missed a kick at goal yet, even though they’ve had three different kickers.
and Ian Keatley are both five from five, Ian Madigan is two from two. Every other team has missed at least one kick. It’s not the Barbarians, throwing the ball around willy-nilly. It’s steady, solid rugby. Kick your points, win your game.
Mistakes will happen. Ireland’s best chance of a try against France was the time in the second half when Sexton hit Jared Payne with a pass just short of the French line but it came at him too quick and he couldn’t hold it.
On the face of it, that was an example of a conservative game plan because there looked to be a skip-pass on out to Rob Kearney, leaving him and Simon Zebo with a two-on-one on the wing.
But actually, if you go back and watch it again, the problem wasn’t that Sexton didn’t take the risk, it was that Payne ran the wrong line. He came darting inside to where the French defenders were, trying to cut back against the grain. He should have held his line and drifted out so that they could put it through the hands. There was a definite try on in the corner but it was just a costly alignment mistake.
A try there would have put Ireland 20-6 ahead – 22-6 if Johnny kicked the conversion. France had Pascal Papé in the bin at that stage and were starting to look ragged. There were 25 minutes to go. A try there and France would have to come out and play a bit more, Ireland could have picked off their mistakes. It could easily have turned into a cakewalk from there but Ireland missed their chance.
The simple fact is rugby now is a matter of which defence holds up best. Safety is everything. I did the Zebre v Glasgow game on the weekend for Sky and Zebre didn’t play with safety in mind. They ran the ball from everywhere and took loads of chances. For their trouble, they got hammered. Glasgow had a solid defence and just picked them off at will.
Good defence wins rugby matches. Or at least it keeps you in them long enough to win them. And it’s a very basic fact in most sports that a good defensive system is easier to build from scratch than a good attacking one. If you have a basic structure and real accountability, you are 90 per cent of the way there.
The accountability side of it is key. After every game, you are handed your stats. How many tackles you made, broken down into impact tackles (that push the opposition back over the gainline) or soak tackles (that push you back over your own gainline). Come back in too many times with substandard stats and they’ll find somebody else to take your place.
I’m not knocking defensive rugby. It’s an art-form in itself and it demands huge levels of concentration from the players to implement it. You have to take notice of so many things at once. Tackle, ruck, clear-out, seal. Fill the defensive line from the ruck outwards, lift your head to assess. Where is the ball going next? Who is running onto it? Where’s the weakness? Can we hold them up? Can we send a shooter? Can we squeeze them out to the sideline and pounce on them there?
And you’re doing this time after time, getting up off the ground to make tackle after tackle. You’re tired, you’re sore, your mind gets more tired as the game progresses. One mistake could be the difference. But you’ve trained, you’ve practised and you trust the system to work.
The problem with the game now is all the top teams have their system and when they come up against each other, you get a stalemate. You now have to go forward before you can go wide. You can’t just throw the ball out to your dazzling winger and expect him to do something incredible with a sidestep to get a line-break.
The opposition have analysed him to death. They’ve put together a load of video clips and stats on him. They know that he steps off his left and fends with his right. They know how he shapes if he’s going to try a chip. It’s all split-second stuff but they’re programmed to know it off by heart. Individual brilliance is getting wiped from the game.
And so you end up with a game where bigger and bigger players crash into bigger and bigger opponents. Guys run out over each other, their team-mates smash in to clear the ruck to try and generate quick ball. Repeat and repeat until hopefully you tire the opposition out and find a chink of space. Players become like robots with so many systems and calls and pieces of information to process.
Is it any wonder they take the safe option most of the time?