Wales lock Ireland out for eighty minutes to take the Grand Slam from us. It finished 25-7 with Ireland’s Larmour picking up the consolation in injury time.
You can’t help feel that those in charge of the tournament schedule got things wrong this year. The thrilling England-Scotland game was less of an event because the title had already been decided. What an afternoon of sport it would have been if the fixtures had been reversed.
With England only getting a draw in the Calcutta Cup match, that meant that Ireland would have begun knowing that the title was truly in their reach.
Joe Schmidt’s words after the game indicated he thought the result of the final match was a foregone conclusion, that Scotland simply could not challenge the red rose. How wrong he was.
If the games had been reversed, instead of going out there to end the season on a high, they could have been fighting to retain the title.
Would it have changed anything? Who knows? Perception plays tricks on the mind. Beating Wales to allow England to steal the championship might not feel like a motivation, compared to beating Wales to win it for yourself is slightly different.
Also, would England have switched off so catastrophically had they really had the title in their grasp? Probably not.
My point is that the organisers should give a Grand Slam team the top bill for the following year’s decider. It won’t guarantee that the final day is full of drama, but it is reasonable to assume that the best team last year will be in with a chance this year.
What went wrong?
Ireland were hit by a wall of red from the opening kick off. They looked like they didn’t expect the pace, heat and intensity that came at them. Wales turned us over far too easily.
Their score looked like it was off the training ground, fruit of some clever video analysis on how Ireland defend under pressure. Anscombe’s kick into space was perfectly executed and finished with perfection by Hadleigh Parkes. Rob Kearney and Conor Murray had left far too much space between them to be able to get into position to cover the kick.
Ireland were rattled by this and although we started to build up the phases, we were undone by countless mistakes. Cian Healy knocked on; CJ Stander messed up a quick tap free kick; Sexton and Murray were ineffectual with the boot.
Sexton in particular will not be happy, and he will have to look closely at his own performance first. His kicking deteriorated as the game went on, trying to buy those extra inches just caused him more woes. His defensive game was spot on, seeing him make some huge hits, and his distribution from the hands was OK, bar one misunderstanding with Rob Kearney on a switch, but it was not enough on the day.
Murray and Sexton did not gel. There is no other was of saying it. Was this a consequence of the Welsh defensive line speed? The half backs got little time to build momentum.
The Irish forwards were bullied with Wales dominating the back row battle. It’s rare of Peter O’Mahony not to get a steal during the game. He looked a battle weary man at the end. Sean O’Brien could not get his hands on the ball enough, taking it standing rather than at speed and making little progress.
The scrum began the day looking dominant, but something went awry. Midway through the first half we started to leak penalties. The Welsh scrum, despite going backwards on a few occasions, were only penalised with free kicks until late in the game. The penalties brought them first territory on which they built pressure and caused more stupid penalties. The scoreboard was purring nicely for them.
Stupid penalties. Sexton off his feet might have been harsh considering there was a Welsh player impeding him and not rolling away, but Beirne going in at the side and not really affecting the result of the ruck which would have been an Irish steal was irritating. Healy gave away some soft ones too.
All this was the result of having to chase the game. That early score was like a blow that floored us and we never really got into the fight afterwards. Reminded me of the smash and grab England did on us in the first game, back in February. We finished almost the same way we started.
Another Six Nations Championship over and what have we learned. Is this Irish team past their sell by date? Schmidt was at pains to say “No” after the game. I think there is still life in the team, but we need to make sure that some of the key relationships are in better working order before the World Cup.
For example, Murray and Sexton are not as effective as they were last year. If the Munster man’s dip in form is a consequence of his long injury then there is reason to hope for an improvement as the season goes on.
It’s more difficult to figure out why Sexton has games that we’d all like to forget. His kicking can be a barometer for his mental state. As yesterday’s game wore on, his kicking deteriorated, as did his mood. We are all used to him barking orders at everyone, ref included, but there more of an edge to it as the Irish challenged fizzled out.
Our line out was not up to the high standard we expect. Admittedly a few players short, with Toner and Henderson being absent, but we simply did not complete a single line out well during the game.
We got a few mauls going, but they did not have the cutting edge of previous years. We need to look at this area of the game. Joe Schmidt has used line out as a platform for scoring tries as long as he has coached. Not getting any return from the investment yesterday was a major disappointment.
I still wonder about what goes on in the scrum. Not too deeply, mind you; that direction may lead to madness. But it’s hard to fathom how our dominant scrum ended up giving up so many penalties yesterday. The Welsh are always clever in the front row, even when they are not stronger. We need to learn a trick or two from them. It is not always the biggest or strongest that wins.
We didn’t get the back line into the game at all. Was it a mistake to leave the roof open? To rely on the forwards winning the game with up-the-jumper rugby. I don’t know. I think we should take the decision away from the manager and the team. Just close the thing every year and forget about it.
There is enough distraction in the week before an international, especially when there is only a six day turnaround that it should not even have to enter the coaches mind. If the five-day forecast says it will rain, close the roof, otherwise leave it open. Then the decision can be taken out of the hands of the senior management and they can concentrate on what’s really important: preparation for the game.
I back this Irish team to improve on these last few games, but would be wary about the World Cup. Scotland will not be easy opposition; they are not going to take it as a foregone conclusion that Ireland top the pool.
Nor are Japan going to be push overs on their own turf. Ireland has two completely different opponents to face, each with plenty of strengths to deal with (and weaknesses to exploit). Getting out of the pool stages may prove tricky.
We cannot afford a slow start to the tournament, nor to individual games. Is there something missing in the back room and the way they prepare for games? Perhaps the longer build up to the World Cup, with warm up games in the late summer will allow the team to gel and hit the ground running.
I hope it does. Joe Schmidt has been a great coach for us and it would be a shame for his reputation to get tarnished going into his final competition.