Joe Schmidt’s Carton House lab leaving little to chance
Ireland have been incredibly disciplined in reducing the penalty count against them
Ieland’s Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien and Paul O’Connell react to referee Wayne Barnes’ controversial late decision against the visitors in Cardiff in 2015. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Imagine Seán O’Brien and Paul O’Connell shaping up to end you. Wayne Barnes faced this very situation and lived to tell the tale.
In 2015 Ireland left a Grand Slam behind them in Cardiff. There were several reasons; wildly inconsistent refereeing, a slavish reliance on one-out runners and Luke Charteris making 31 tackles are just some.
No team or person with aspirations of high achievement can afford to stand still. They evolve, they learn from experience.
Well, some do. Some don’t bother.
Manipulating the referee has become a key tenet for success under Joe Schmidt or, to be more accurate, reducing the officials’ relevance has given Irish cruiserweights an ability to overcome any heavyweight rugby nation.
Players know that a snapshot is all the ref sees in the heat of battle. From precise tackle technique to low torpedoes into rucks, the officials over the past eight months have been given little or no reason to penalise Ireland.
The statistical returns are astonishing.
Ireland have conceded an average 6.5 penalties, to 11 by their collective opponents, since last summer’s unsuccessful tour of South Africa.
Narrow it down and they average an almost incomprehensible 3.6 penalties in November – ignoring the nine against Canada – with just four penalties in each New Zealand game (as the All Blacks went 12 and then 14) reduced to three against Australia.
Michael Cheika, not a man to calmly digest failure, was livid afterwards.
“A 13-3 penalty count costs you field position, territory and then obviously points as well. You can’t win a Test match giving away that many penalties or that big a difference between the two teams. Impossible.
“We have to do that stuff with the refs, mate. We have been told that we can’t talk about that in public, because they don’t want the interpretations being done in public. That’s the edict they have given us, that we can’t say anything about it, we’d love to but we are not allowed to.”
Ireland’s average penalty concession during this Six Nations is seven. Their opponents: 10.
International rugby has become about staying ahead of the ever slanting rule interpretation curve (see Conor O’Shea’s Italy or Steve Hansen’s All Blacks).
This is Schmidt’s Ireland; impeccably disciplined with everyone gathered in the Carton laboratory needing to be able to compute, then apply, the coach’s highly-demanding methodology.
There have been teething problems. Two years ago Ireland bludgeoned the Welsh line in a 23-16 loss, with far too many of the game’s definitive moments resting at the feet of Friday’s returning referee from England, the renowned and respected Mr Barnes.
Call it a watershed moment.
“This is looking good, Ireland in total control,” said a worried Jonathan Davies on BBC as O’Brien piloted the maul within two metres of the Welsh line (a similar penalty try was already banked) in the 79th minute. A split second later Barnes blew for a Wales scrum.
“Dragged down,” motioned O’Connell, his head smouldering towards eruption as he rose from a heap of bodies.
“There’s nothing clear, there’s nothing clear,” Barnes responded in full court-martial voice.
O’Brien, a look of disgust blazoned across his dishevelled mug, was ominously close to the 37-year-old ref.
Barnes, who on this same pitch in 2007 faced the vitriolic death stares of Richie McCaw and friends, didn’t flinch.
The clock ticked 79.47 as Ireland locked-in for one last eight-man shove. The stadium was truly alive, “And Mike Phillips has to put the ball in straight,” said Eddie Butler on BBC. “He doesn’t.”
Barnes, under enormous strain, saw nothing illegal.
Ireland wheeled the Welsh into the turf as the tighthead side folded under Cian Healy but in the 81st minute, as he had in the first, Barnes whistled a Wales penalty.
Why? Argentinian touch judge, Federico Anselmi, seemingly made the call from the blindside.
“No,” was Schmidt’s answer the following Thursday when asked if a clear explanation had followed from Barnes or his boss Joël Jutge. “For us, really, it’s about going forward now.”
Ireland did just that, retaining the Six Nations title with a 40-10 victory in Murrayfield.
All this is worth revisiting, not because pain is cleansing, which it is, but to understand how a similar fate has since been avoided.
Just 48 seconds after kick-off in 2015 Jamie Roberts charged into O’Brien who, along with O’Connell, sought to choke tackle the big centre only for all three men to come crashing to earth.
O’Brien bounced to his feet but was cleared by Alun Wyn Jones while O’Connell rolled off Roberts onto the Welsh side. Any other movement would have denied scrumhalf Rhys Webb access to the ball. Webb touched the ball against O’Connell’s prone midriff, glancing at Barnes before whipping a pass to his left.
Barnes didn’t allow the next phase to develop before awarding the penalty that allowed Leigh Halfpenny make it 3-0.
On seven minutes Peter O’Mahony had a nibble of Welsh ball. Barnes didn’t hesitate. 6-0. On nine minutes Gethin Jenkins made first contact with the ball-carrying Jamie Heaslip before Sam Warburton helped drag down Ireland’s number eight. Jenkins got his hands on the ball before Heaslip tore it back and presented to Conor Murray. Barnes blew for holding on. Halfpenny made it 9-0.
On 12 minutes Jack McGrath made a chop tackle on Toby Faletau before a genuine attempt to roll out of Webb’s way. Wales switched the point of attack but before another phase unfolded Barnes blew up, again.
“Paul,” Barnes replied. “It’s not about whether he can get out any quicker, he can’t fall that side to stop the nine’s path . . . one against you, one against six, one against one.”
O’Connell (from The Battle) told his players: “’Keep the faith – because if we have the ball, we’ll get the same penalties.’ Then after about 20 minutes, he just changed how he was reffing it . . . It was very disappointing.”
This may have been the moment Schmidt decided that a referee will never again whip up the sort of maelstrom that wipes his team out of the history books. Or allow an old sage like Warren Gatland seep impure thoughts into an official’s mind.
Either way those early calls seemed premeditated. The Test match eventually turned back Ireland’s way – but it took 18 minutes longer than was needed to ensure the decisive moments didn’t belong to Wayne Barnes.
Really, the Slam disappeared during a scoreless nine and a half minutes battering away at the Welsh line; 32 phases were followed by a failed lineout drive and 13 more one or two out carries before error intervened.
Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe spent what seemed the crucial seconds flapping their arms and roaring for anyone to see the numerical advantage wide right.
But Ireland seemed to know only one way. A penalty try, born from a lineout maul on 68 minutes, finally, set up the grandstand finish.
So much has transpired since. Ireland have clearly evolved, yet can revert to type when brutality is demanded, as it always will be to beat South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, France and Wales in Cardiff.
Schmidt even balked recently at the mere suggestion that Ireland lean heavily on the one out runner.
“What is the percentage of one-out runners?” he asked in response to the question.
It remains high but presuming CJ Stander adds to his 69 carries for 161 metres in three matches then Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric will be forced into tackling and kept away from Murray’s ball. Against France, Heaslip and O’Brien shared 30 carries – 17 and 13 – for a 39 metre gain but their South African colleague covered the same ground with his herculean 23 rumbles.
How will Barnes, in his first Six Nations game this season as the referee, call the breakdown?
There will be no soothing pre-match words from Gatland. Noises from embattled interim coach Rob Howley are about Welsh failure to turn “dominance” into a “clinical” or “accurate” performance.
Howley badly needs another 12 point head-start.
“Wales have been sloppy,” said Keith Wood on Newstalk in reference to Dan Biggar and Wyn Jones disagreeing at a pivotal moment in defeat to Scotland. “Whether that’s kicking for goal or into the corner, having a debate in the middle of it is not a good sign for a team. You want absolute determination – ‘Yeah, we’ll do this.’
“They got messy, they became incredibly one dimensional, they were lacking a cutting threat, totally.”
In summation, Wales look a team shorn their master tactician.
Ireland are the opposite. The one-out runner will remain a necessary option but clear evolvement has transpired, certainly since Chicago, whereas Wales seem to be standing still.
“Wales are not scoring a huge amount of points anymore,” Wood added. “I don’t think it’s luck. I think they look flat for some reason.
“All the teams since the World Cup have made a level of progression. Ireland’s game has moved on, Scotland and England’s games have moved on, with a variety of different pod systems in the middle of the field where you are pulling behind one player to another player – the forwards are intermingling, the forwards are not trying to cover the whole pitch.
“Wales are not really doing that. They make an effort to do it then drift back into the one out stuff at times.”
Victory on Friday night would shovel this rugby island into unbroken ground as a third Six Nations title in four seasons comes down to figuring out Eddie Jones’ England.
Undoubtedly, the Carton Lab has a secret potion brewing.
Ireland penalties conceded – pens awarded
South Africa (Ireland conceded 8 pens, SA conceded 10)
South Africa (8-9)
South Africa (11-10)
New Zealand (4-12)
New Zealand (4-14)