Gerry Thornley: Sobering defeat means Ireland playing catch-up
Holy Grail of Grand Slam slips from grasp but focus turns to title for regrouped squad
Sex appeal: Ireland outhalf Johnny Sexton leads a team talk in the huddle during last week’s crunch game against Wales. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Maybe, just maybe, there is indeed a silver lining of some kind to last Saturday’s defeat. Another leading-from-the-front victory, thereby ensuring a record run of wins and cementing Ireland’s place as the third-ranked side in the world, along with a Grand Slam to back up last year’s title, might have made us too giddy altogether. Come the World Cup, aside from learning more from your defeats than your wins, Saturday’s defeat ensures a degree of balance.
And yet, damn and blast it, Ireland has only ever won two Grand Slams in 120 attempts. Maybe that’s why we place way too much importance on a slam compared to a title, even if this only makes this week’s sense of disappointment all the more acute. And a record 11th successive win would have been a nice cherry on top of the cake for the centurion Paul O’Connell.
Admittedly, there’s still a title at stake, and Ireland have only won 12 of those outright in 120 attempts, not to mention the prize of back-to-back titles for the first time since 1948-49. So that’s not to be sniffed at and no better man than O’Connell to regroup and refocus the squad.
Yet it looks harder for Ireland to lift themselves now compared to their two title rivals. Wales have the most momentum, after three successive wins, while England arguably have the most hunger after finishing runners-up for the last three years and on points difference for the last two.
England also have the advantage of kicking off last, and have been playing the most fluent, attacking rugby in this fairly repetitive tournament. Hence, their try tally of 11, as compared to Ireland’s of four, two of which have come from line-out mauls, which is significantly down on last season’s haul of 16.
Ireland aren’t alone in finding tries harder to come by, with this year’s tally after four rounds of 35 tries six down on the 41 at that same stage last season, with the final total likely to be well short of last season’s given 20 tries on the final weekend that boosted the overall figure to 61.
Last Saturday underlined the huge importance of the aerial duel, the set-pieces and Johnny Sexton – bedrocks, ironically, of the win over England two weeks before. The sight of the Welsh winning the first four aerial duels had a seismic effect on the match, as did two lost lineouts at both ends of the pitch.
The dependence on Sexton has arguably become even more pronounced since Brian O’Driscoll retired. Hence, when he is off-colour for whatever reason, the ripple effect is perhaps greater, and this was underlined in Saturday’s game and in one incident especially. A 48-metre penalty suggests there was nothing untoward with his hamstring, and the word from the camp confirms as much. Maybe the early fend-off from Jonathan Davies affected him, but he was not himself.
It’s worth stressing that Ireland wouldn’t have been within an ass’s roar of winning 10 games in succession without Sexton. Indeed, he has been Ireland’s single most influential player in last season’s Six Nations, the November series and this Six Nations.
One incident especially underlined his importance, when he was at the bottom of a ruck under the Welsh posts. It’s easy in the cheap seats, for sure, but it’s also easier to make one-off charges for the line when a team is building pressure through the phases close to the line. It requires communication and vision to utilise a hard-earned overlap, but for whatever reason those inside were not aware of Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo and Jared Payne screaming for the ball in that second, pivotal multi-phase drive.
To a degree, the performance of Wayne Barnes is something of a red herring in the greater scheme of things and yet somehow Irish teams have got to develop a better working relationship with this man. However, the influence of referees on games is far too pronounced, and never more so than last Saturday.
Take the first scrum around the half-hour mark, not long after Sam Warburton has been yellow-carded and Ireland walked Wales back: Sean O’Brien and Paul O’Connell are aghast to find that Barnes has penalised Jack McGrath. Not many referees would have done so, and as it led to a Dan Biggar drop goal, this decision alone amounted to a possible six-point swing.
Interestingly, Ronan O’Gara and Eddie O’Sullivan disagree with the bookies in making the Welsh favourites. Wales are effectively in the position England were in a year ago, on the last weekend, when Stuart Lancaster’s team sought to set Ireland a target but a 52-11 win came up short, as Ireland’s points differential was 49 better off than England’s going into the final Saturday.
Ireland were in a similar position to Wales this weekend on the final round in 2007, when trailing France by four points on points differential, and running in eight tries in a 51-24 win over Italy in the Stadio Olimpico to thus set France a target of beating Scotland by 24 points or more. A try with the last play of the game by Elvis Vermeulen enabled France to win by 46-19 and thus secure the title on points difference.
It will be interesting to see what changes are made. The calls for changing the midfield now make little sense, as does the notion of looking ahead to the World Cup by playing Ian Madigan at outhalf. The argument for a Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls off the bench would appear to provide more footwork and game-breaking ability if Ireland are looking to come from behind.
Wonderful front-running team though they are, as happened last Saturday, playing catch-up had to happen one day. Maybe it was better to find out now than later. firstname.lastname@example.org