What is certain is that the final series of scrums in the Ireland vs USA game could and should have yielded a fourth try for the former team. Maybe we had to give Mushy a run though, just in case, but not many are convinced! Now it looks a very expensive gamble.
Another point in the Pool would have changed the complexity of Sunday’s game totally. Italy needing a win, four tries and to keep us from scoring even a losing bonus – a full house, and they have never scored four against us, nor kept us outside of 7 points.
Most acknowledge that if Sergio Parisse was not playing against Ireland, the odds on Italy would lengthen considerably and many Irish rugby fans would wait for the outcome on VTR later in the day. But it is what it is and the question now must be, how do you nullify the best No 8 in the world?
In the days when Willie Duggan was playing for Ireland, alongside John O’Driscoll or Stewart McKinney, a short discussion over a pint on Thursday evening would have sorted the problem. An early throw to the back of the line-out would have been followed by one of those interminable mauls in which the pile of bodies at the end looked like a scene from the trenches in WW1 – and from which Parisse would have emerged with a badly twisted knee and ultimately headed for an early bath. But those days are over – 40 match cameras and three match officials have seen to that.
So how do you cope with a player of his ability and threat?
The Mole would posit that there are two ways of going about this and each has an element of risk. The first route is to play to him all the time and double or triple mark him. Throw line-out ball towards where he is in the line-out and commit him to competing. Use back-row moves to involve him in early tackles off scrums so that he is closer to the bottom than the top, of every ruck. Run ball at him off every breakdown – committing him to be a primary tackler and less involved in loose, or creative, broken play. Hang on to him at the bottom of rucks, hang on to him past the ball, simply hang on to him and stop him getting around the pitch!
The risk is that he is good enough is handle this pressure and starts to win ball from these involvements. He takes line-outs we need, he turns over ball from our back-row, or he knocks our ball carrier off his feet backwards and leads the entire Italian pack into the sort of situation on which they thrive. So that’s plan one.
The second rugby gospel is that practiced by the Australians in this year’s Tri-Nations. They wanted to keep the ball away from Kieran Read who they considered to be a better game breaker than McCaw – at that time. On New Zealand scrums, both Elsom and Genia were instructed to ensure that Read had nowhere to go off any scrum in Australia’s half. He could play it to Ellis or to Weepu, or even Carter, but he could not make more than three metres himself. Another major ploy was that the Aussies did not kick short grubbers (for which Read is the ‘sweeper’), or return restarts to the side that they had received on. They reclaimed restarts, rucked the ball, then tried (mostly successfully) to move it to the open side for Curtly Beale or AAC to kick towards the opposite side of the pitch – where Kieran Read wasn’t, in other words.
Australia tried very hard to use a very disciplined game plan to avoid giving Read ball time. The downside of this was that they had to not only work on beating high-quality opponents, they had to do so in a particular fashion, which takes huge concentration and great confidence in a game with high stakes.
The problem with judging which strategy is most effective is that the Australian didn’t have to wait to find out, as Read, and his natural successor in the AB’s, Adam Thomson, both retired injured within the first quarter of the game. (Proof of any theories that this was a reversion to the original “Irish” way, should be sent to Jim Williams, c/o Munster Old Boys, Thomond Park, Limerick).
Finally, something I must get off my chest. In modern rugby, players wearing the same number very rarely ‘mark’ each other. For instance, the natural opponent for a scrum half is not the guy wearing No 9 on the opposite side, but rather the guy wearing No 6, the blind side flanker, who targets the scrum-half from every line-out and scrum and quite often is the guy following through, after a pass to the out-half is long-gone. Similarly, the out-half, No 10 is primarily marked by the No 7, the open-side flanker, who earns his corn if the out-half passes or kicks more often than he breaks. So it is throughout the pitch, No 10 competes with No 15 constantly running him back, forward and across, 14 handles 11, and so on. Only at Nos. 4, 5 and 8 is there a, constant, direct confrontation, at every line-out and ruck, between direct opponents. So perhaps that’s the real answer to the Parisse challenge!
For Signor Parisse, the answer lies in the hand of Jamie Heaslip. He has got to make Nick Mallet more concerned at half-time regarding his contribution than Declan Kidney is about Parisse. A reasonable challenge, and one that in a Heineken Cup game Jamie would win hands down, but this is an even bigger stage. As I write prior to team selection, the presence of Murray in the starting line-up will mean that DK is opting for the Australian strategy.
Finally to finish on the theme of direct marking, the major opponent of every hooker is the opposition tight-head prop, No3, and the only guy who can protect him in this regard is his own loose-head prop, No1. If No1 loses the battle against No3 at scrum time, the poor unfortunate who suffers is usually No2 [who does No2 work for?], usually about 20kgs lighter and 6cms smaller! Nothing’s fair in serious sport, but then you knew that already. Rory buys the pints if Mike has a stormer!
Ireland by 13 points, with ROG and the captain leading the way! No MOTM for Sergio.