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Gordon D’Arcy: the red card ruined the match . . . What about the player's head?

Ewels was upright, clumsy and ran risk of a head collision in trying to stop offload

When I saw the tackle from Charlie Ewels, my first concern was for James Ryan. It's horrible watching an incident like that because as a former player you know how it feels, the after effects of a concussive blow. There was also an instant empathy for a player who just needs a change of luck and a run of matches.

Sitting in the commentary box, I was immediately privy to the words that sealed Ewels’s fate, before anyone on the pitch or in the stands was fully aware of what had just transpired. The television match official interjected: “the tackler is upright and there is a direct collision with the head.”

The only way for the England secondrow to avoid a red card was for there to be some mitigation; that potential escape clause was crossed out on the first viewing. As an aside I was fulfilling some post-match obligations and was struck by the number of predominantly England supporters who complained that the red card had ruined the spectacle.

I was watching the match unfold in the second half and Ireland were doing everything they possibly could

What they probably meant was that it largely removed any chance that Eddie Jones’s team was going to win the game. Few English supporters can or should quibble with their team’s performance and the integrity of effort and application that was evident in manfully trying to defy the odds.

I thought it was thoroughly engrossing for 72 minutes, but then again that's a matter of perspective and not just if you were supporting Ireland or England. I also believe that former players might look at things a little differently to some fans.

Once the outcome was decided and the final whistle blew there was little acknowledgement for the players leaving the pitch and instead the debate turned to how the red card had ruined an evening out in south west London.

The definitive statement I would make in general terms is that players need to tackle lower: full stop. Ewels was upright, clumsy and ran the risk of a head collision in trying to stop the offload. In watching and rewatching the incident I started to think about what is preferable for rugby union both in terms of the spectacle and safety concerns.

Is it more appealing to have players tackling lower with a moderate risk of an offload and the try-scoring potential that would arise, or for a continued prevalence of upright tackles which run a high risk of red cards should heads collide?

Those who clamour for an orange card, or whatever fits the colour palette between yellow and red, allowing the offender to be replaced after a specific period of time, presupposes that the officials can decide on intent in the maelstrom of a match. How do you adjudicate what a player was thinking?

The answer is that you can’t, so for the time being spectators will have to be patient until the penny drops about tackle height for players. In the here and now, red cards are very much a part of rugby and will continue to be until coaches and players come together to try and improve technique.

Adversity

I wrote last week about how important it was for Ireland not to allow England a chance to build confidence and resilience. The irony is that England's hugely impressive performance in adversity might galvanise them for the trip to Stade de France on Saturday night; the main beneficiaries of which in terms of the destination of the Six Nations Championship would be Ireland.

They harbour an inherent belief that had Ewels stayed on the field they would have been on the right side of the result. It’s a redundant debate. After all, how much of the character demonstrated by England was engendered by the red card? They might not have been able to summon that fire in different circumstances.

Sports people don’t always subscribe to logic, well perhaps just enough to justify how they perceive certain events. England may choose the gilded moments of their performance, the penalty count at scrum time, the aerial wins and pressure in defence that kept Ireland at bay, or close at hand if you prefer, until fatigue kicked in.

France have become steadily more cautious and conservative in their rugby style as the Six Nations tournament has progressed and the pressure on them as they chase that Grand Slam on Saturday night has the capacity to suffocate the team. The memory of Romain Ntamack counter-attacking from his in-goal area seems a distant one at this stage.

Competition pressure matters and it is yet unclear how France will manage this match. England are physically big and when you are big there are times when you don’t have to be very good to win matches. France are also big but they wilted in the final 20 against Ireland. If they want to be considered contenders for next year’s Rugby World Cup on home soil then they need to not only win this match but produce a performance to match.

When you win a match with the benefit of a red card it invariably leaves a hollow taste. The perception is everything the team with the numerical advantage does is facilitated by the card, whether that is wrong or right as an appraisal of what’s actually happened. I was watching the match unfold in the second half and Ireland were doing everything they possibly could.

The rational part of my brain was watching the possession and territory stats growing positively with every minute, but as Steve Peters’s book Listen to the Chimp Paradox explains, my irrational brain was dominating my thought process by focusing instead on the scoreboard, where the impossible was starting to seem extremely possible.

I exhaled when Jack Conan scored his try after 72 minutes and the tension began to leave my body. In last week’s column I wrote about Twickenham being a tough place to win and that premise was borne out.

When James Lowe scored Ireland’s opening try, the product of some beautiful passing and interplay in the build-up, it was exactly what you expected from visitors. England burned players at the ruck and as a result there was so much space either side for Ireland to attack.

However, England gradually wrested control of the tempo as their opponents racked up unforced individual errors. This was compounded by penalties conceded at the scrum which allowed Eddie Jones side to accumulate territory, possession and points without having to really work for them and also to emphasise the importance of technical skills at scrums in the modern game.

Technical changes

England's tactic of targeting the scrum not only acted as a valve to release pressure but also became a lucrative source of points. Ireland's attack-minded set-up in the front row was exposed by Ellis Genge and Jamie George in the first half.

Despite the technical changes made at half-time which addressed this issue, Ireland still leaked penalties, because referee Mathieu Raynal had a picture in his head that England had the dominant scrum and therefore continued to reward them, even when there was evidence to the contrary.

So when England’s replacement tighthead prop Will Stuart flopped to the ground, Raynal continued to be captivated by Ellis Genge’s work on the other side of the scrum. Ireland couldn’t control possession as a result and that meant they couldn’t exert a firm grip on the match.

Crucially though they did not panic, stayed the course and pulled away in the final few minutes after they had sucked the energy and any lingering fight from an understandably jaded England to grab a very important bonus point.

Farrell may be tempted to make a few changes other than those necessitated by injury, especially if there is a physical legacy from London

The nature of Conan’s try was built on the principles of Irish attack, quick ruck with accurate clearouts and good decisions with ball in hand. Hugo Keenan’s composure in allowing Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly to get ahead of the ball before passing to Garry Ringrose ensured that Andrew Conway got some space and time. A simple decision with good footwork finally opened up the width of the pitch.

There is plenty still to get right: the set-up for the scrum will top the list. There is no shortcut for experience and Dan Sheehan will appreciate the phrase that diamonds are made by pressure after his experiences in the scrum at Twickenham. There is an expectation that your learning curve reflects your talent and I think that will absolutely be the case for the young hooker.

The spotlight will shine on the performance glitches and addressing them before next Saturday at the Aviva stadium; accuracy in the wider channels, being set to play off quick rucks, support for Keenan under the high ball and trying to win the space in the aerial duels will be top of the agenda.

If Ireland absorbs the practical lessons of Twickenham then they will have extracted a great deal more than a bonus point victory. They will understand that a red card guarantees nothing unless the non-offending team is diligent and precise, mentally and physically. They could have handled that advantage better but crucially they weren’t derailed by it.

Scotland, unpredictable at the best of times, have been a thorny opponent for Ireland on regular occasions and that would be the expectation when the two meet at the weekend. They have experienced both sides of the performance coin already in the tournament in victory over England and defeat to Wales. Gregor Townsend will see this game as a great opportunity to strike a blow.

Farrell may be tempted to make a few changes other than those necessitated by injury, especially if there is a physical legacy from London. But whatever team takes the pitch, the key for Ireland is to win, and in doing so be able to accept any favours that might come from Paris.

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