Gordon D'Arcy: Systems errors frustrating but fixable
Defensive lapses cost us but no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater
Stuart Hogg runs in his second try against Ireland at Murrayfield. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
The French game in Dublin now looks like the make-or-break moment in Ireland’s season. There are no certainties in life, but a bonus point win in Rome should follow what was an avoidable Murrayfield defeat.
After round two comes a fortnight run-in for Guy Noves and Joe Schmidt to figure each other out. What we know is France remain a side full of enormous specimens and after just 18 months of Noves they have already threatened to beat the All Blacks, the Wallabies and England in Twickenham.
The French are moving in one direction and victory over a major rugby nation is coming.
Scotland in Paris along with England in Cardiff makes for some compelling spectacles in this already undulating Six Nations.
I will look at how Ireland lost to Scotland, or more importantly why they didn’t go on to win after taking a 22-21 lead, but signs of a French revival must be consuming some corner of Schmidt’s mind during the wee hours down in Carton House.
France are here to play rugby and while they may not be the fittest team in the championship, they refused to take a knee against England.
The usual shoulder shrugging when difficulties arise on the road is no longer obvious.
That tells me they have the potential to show up in Dublin. Their try on Saturday evening was a throw-back to the joie de vivre rugby of the 1990s. There was an hour on the clock when the phenomenal Louis Picamoles made yardage and drew two tacklers – he seems to always offload - which made him comparable to brief yet stunning cameos by their Fijian wingers Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa.
England, leading this mostly non-descript test match 12-9, sensed how dangerous France looked and did everything in their power to slow the march into their 22. Joe Launchbury put in a high tackle on Gaël Fickou, Courtney Lawes slapped the ball down and still Les Bleus kept coming.
It has taken France five coaches in the professional era to, finally, start singing off the same hymn-sheet.
Much like we were all saying about Ireland in November. And will be, I am sure, after a marked improvement this weekend in Rome.
All those early inroads Scotland made were avoidable. Stuart Hogg’s second try helped them into a 14-0 lead after 20 minutes. That attack began at the previous lineout when Josh Strauss carried into midfield, where Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose both committed to tackling the number eight, thereby removing them from the defensive line for the second phase. I can’t help but feel resources would have been better used by placing Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander around Jackson to avoid both centres entering a midfield ruck.
I don’t know exactly what defensive system Ireland are using but I would be surprised if Paddy Jackson was meant to be lining up on Russell.
What I do know is no team can afford to lose both centres to a midfield ruck when defending a first phase attack.
When the ball is recycled, Ringrose is out of position, while Sean O’Brien could have been be out wider to put pressure on Jones instead of Earls, who then has to scramble over to try and tackle Hogg.
Considering the Scottish fullback’s pace, this proves an impossible task. Despite the initial set-up, Ireland still could have scrambled to save the try. This is probably more frustrating for Andy Farrell than anything else that transpired.
It’s normal enough to leave the last man free in an attack but two men on the outside meant Rob Kearney had to hit the winger and hope the cover caught Hogg.
With two free men out wide Russell can fix most of the Irish defenders with a skip pass. There are examples of Scotland’s wide, wide approach as soon as their outhalf had ball in hand, and Ireland knew they were going to attack this way from studying reels of Glasgow footage and Scotland in November.
But sometimes none of what is studied beforehand matters in the heat of battle. In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s match a few players will have a very uncomfortable feeling; they’ll know something went badly wrong without being able to put their finger on it. Only looking at the video will they realise what it was, who it was and how simple it would have been to stop Hogg from gliding clear.
It is easier to swallow a straight up missed tackle or a glaring individual error because the player can take responsibility for it.
Because he knows what happened.
Saturday might need some explaining. In my first ever Six Nations match against Italy I missed a one-on-one with Gonzalo Canale, but I presumed the fullback was my insider defender’s man. My teammate wasted no time setting me straight: “That’s your f**kin’ man!”
When Italy ran the same play a few minutes later I put Canale into the ground.
When you are not sure what the problem is it feels like death by a thousand cuts. Unlike the NFL, rugby players are not shown their error on an iPad during multiple breaks in play. Yes, coaches are constantly sending on information onto the field but a momentum shift like this drains confidence and it becomes increasingly difficult to compute what is being said. You are shattered, sucking in air. The Scots fed on this emotion, duly heaping on the sort of pressure we have seen from Ireland, Munster and Leinster over the years.
This is what can happen when the defensive system misses a beat - everything else tends to be out of sync. If Henshaw had been a fraction wider and hit Strauss with his left instead of right shoulder, Seanie O’Brien and not Ringrose – who had to make sure the tackle was secure - could have been the second man in. That would have allowed Ringrose, CJ Stander and Paddy Jackson to number up in more familiar defensive positions and everyone comes up in the line with Earls marking Hogg.
All very fixable.
It’s true that there is a significant loss of experience in the absence of Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne but these moments cannot be learned at training. Jackson, Henshaw and Ringrose had never started a test match together. Payne is an expert problem solver on the pitch.
Ringrose and Henshaw can become that. Scotland took advantage - this is not necessarily to do with line speed or softness – by sensing the opportunities and catching Ireland cold for all three tries.
Graham Henry, during his visit to Leinster’s preseason training in August, made one clear point: a successful team will always recognise the opportunities they have created.
Four minutes before half-time in Murrayfield, Stander then Rob Kearney busted tackles to put Ireland on the front foot. Play was moving from right to left and after O’Brien carried next all Scottish eyes were trained on Conor Murray’s pass to Henshaw. This saw Ireland attacking with four against five Scottish defenders. If Murray got the call to come back right, Jackson could have used the three Irish forwards – Toner, Henderson and Heaslip – to fix three Scottish forwards with Kearney and Zebo waiting in space against one Scottish defender (Alex Dunbar).
Recognising the numerical advantage in a split second is precisely how Russell set up Hogg for his tries. The opportunity to profit from the one out Irish runners was missed and a huge amount of energy was expended to create this chance. Ireland must capitalise on such moments if a bonus point, or any sort of win, is to follow in Rome this weekend and beyond. Because they will keep creating these moments.
Schmidt has already broken all of this down. Ireland lost the game with a narrow defence and by failing to grasp the chances that came along from all the hard graft.
Much, if not all, of this will be addressed. My concern is a similar amount of fine tuning by France will yield some sensational tries (granted, England still managed to beat them with a poor performance but they are further along in their evolution under Eddie Jones).
The championship doesn’t get any easier. In their Fijian strike runners France have unlimited attacking potential.
Ironing out the Murrayfield creases in Rome can act as a catapult into the France match (while Scotland in Paris could be a spectacular game).
The Irish players can narrow their focus. I have some idea what Carton House might be like this week. In 2011 we lost in Cardiff partly due to the Scottish touch judge getting the rules wrong for the quick lineout leading to a Mike Philips try. We ended up losing a game we had fought so hard to get back into a position to win. It’s a sickening feeling so the focus must switch to what they did well.
Considering Ireland dominated possession, Scotland really shouldn’t have won but you can get lost in stats, and the Scots took their chances when it mattered.
Also, people bemoaning the dream of a lost Grand Slam need a reality check. Ireland have only achieved this twice so really that’s all it is, a dream. In my entire career, only once did we get ourselves into the position to win the slam. Every other season, like 2007, we came agonisingly close to capturing the championship.
That goal remains well within this squad’s reach. It’s business as usual. Ireland need to win four out of five matches for the title. We know it doesn’t come easy, it never does for us.
Jackson has experienced misery at Murrayfield before, but for Henshaw and Ringrose it was new. The route to becoming an established international is rarely linear; there tends to be chastising moments like this along the way. Yet they now find themselves on a well worn path. Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip and the other senior players can guide them out of this. No need for stress. Leadership comes in a variety of ways; the big emotive speech is a rarity. A few simple conversations can exorcise any demons but more importantly doing the right thing this week can say more than words can.
I know exactly what I did the week after losing to Wales in 2011. My job. That’s the New England Patriots motto (Do Your Job) and if it works for them . . .
If each and every player fulfils his specific role, without hesitation or doubt, this week the Irish standards from November, that had everyone setting them up for this fall, will return against Italy.
Hogg’s free-wheeling was snuffed out in the second half because the players were probably told to set up a yard wider. Those at fault were shown the error of their ways and were able to make sure it didn’t happen again.
No blame, just fix it.