Neither team are at the same level as NZ [skill-wise] or SA [in terms of physicality], but given the rugby we’ve seen over the last four months or so it’s difficult to argue that either team isn’t in the top five in the world at the moment. Sure there were errors – dropped kicks, missed tackles, a crap drop-goal attempt, passes to nobody, kicks out on the full, a ball dropped over the line, even a falcon – but The Mole thought it was a cracking test match. Both sides left everything they had on the field.
Where The Teams Stood Before Kick-off
Unknit those eyebrows, Martin “Johno Johno” Johnson. We’re not dredging that protocol incident up again.
Going into the game, England were ranked 4th in the world by the IRB, on 85.18 points; Ireland were ranked sixth, on 81.05. That’s about the same difference as between first placed New Zealand [93.81] and second-placed South Africa [89.34], or between ourselves and eighth-placed Samoa [77.34].
The IRB rankings aren’t to everybody’s taste, but a] they exist, b] they have a defined use and c] they’re officially how the governing body of rugby ranks international teams. Using them as a measuring stick is hardly statistical voodoo. So, taking the above examples of how teams ranked four points apart fared when the lower-ranked team visited the higher ranked team is a half-interesting exercise.
The last time the Springboks visited New Zealand [September 2013], Romain Poite sent Bismarck du Plessis off and New Zealand won 29-15. The sending off probably made it a bit of an outlier, so it’s worth looking at the next to last game between the two on NZ soil, back in September 2012. The All Blacks won that one as well, 21-11. The last time Samoa played Ireland in Lansdowne Road, back in November of last year, Ireland won 40-9.
If you’re ranked four points higher than your visitors, it’s a significant upset to lose.
In terms of recent matches between the sides, England have edged Ireland over the last five games. They had won three to our two, and had won the last three in a row [including two at Lansdowne Road, the first of those being the final warm-up game before RWC11] going into Saturday’s game.
Going to Twickenham is a tough ask, and has become tougher since Lancaster got the English house in order. When Ireland have won over there, it has been by quite narrow margins: 19-13 in 2004, 28-24 in 2006 [with a 79th minute Shane Horgan try] and 20-16 in 2010 [with a 75th minute Tommy Bowe try]. Conversely, when we lost, we got hosed: 10-33 in 2008, 9-30 in 2012.
This game obviously didn’t fall into those categories. You’d have to go back thirty years to find a similarly narrow Irish loss at Twickers, the 9-12 reverse back in 1984.
In the simplest terms, it was a high-paced encounter between two well-matched sides with the home team edging it. I think England probably deserved their three point margin over the full course of the eighty minutes.
Doughty Yeomen Behind Pointy Stakes
The English defense was very quick off their blocks, very hard-hitting around the fringe of the breakdown and particularly disciplined, highlighted by the fact that Ireland only had one kickable penalty in 80 mins.
Some of that is home advantage – there was a good bit of ‘hands off, England’ or ‘roll away, white’ at the breakdown, and not an awful lot of ‘penalty Ireland’ from ref Joubert – but they were similarly disciplined in Lansdowne Road last year. They only gave away three kickable penalties in 80 mins last season [in the rain, away from home] and just like this game, they didn’t concede a kickable penalty in the first half.
Big Game Player Plays Well In Big Game
Brian O’Driscoll turned in what can fairly be described as a vintage performance in attack. There were outside breaks [his first ball of the game, when he skinned Twelvetrees] inside breaks [poleaxe-ing Danny Care as a flourish], well-timed passes to put people into space [Dave Kearney at the end of the game], a well-weighted chip over the top … he varied his attacking options, kept the opposition guessing and took small gaps when they opened. He didn’t single-handedly break into the Bank of England, but it was a quality outside centre’s performance.
It wasn’t just the small expositions of great skill that have highlighted some recent O’Driscoll performances; these were repeated gain-line successes, big plays which had a significant impact on the shape of the match.
As it happens, The Mole probably doesn’t like between-the-legs passes or back-heel flicks ‘as much as the next man’ – I like ’em, but the next man seems to absolutely f*cking love them!
There’s something about a piece of ‘standard’ play executed in high-pressure and high-paced situations that appeals to me more. I think it’s because it’s ‘pure rugby’ – it’s the zenith of the basic things that you’ve been practicing since you were six or seven and first picked up a rugby ball, the skills that form the very basis of the game carried out in a manner that’s as close to perfection as matters. Everybody who has ever played knows how difficult those ‘basics’ are to execute well in the highest standard they’ve played in. Seeing them performed so well in the phenomenal pace and intensity of a high quality test match just makes that appreciation grow.
O’Driscoll was busy [25 possessions], he varied his game, he made breaks, he beat men, he put people into space. The actions translated well into his numbers from the game. In terms of attack, his numbers were very strong – a K/P/R of 2/11/12, 50 metres with ball in hand, 1 clean break, 4 defenders beaten, 1 offload – and compare positively to Fofana’s and Bastareaud’s numbers in their recent game against England.
The English defense is very well-organised, very disciplined and very physical. Their midfield is a difficult unit to penetrate or break down, and have proven it against most of the top teams in the world [barring South Africa] in the last 12 months.Again, even putting aside individual bits of skills that can’t be adequately translated to the page, Drico’s numbers compare very well to Ben Smith’s and Ma’a Nonu’s performances from the November game between England and NZ, Kuridrani’s and Toomua’s performances for Australia in the same series and Davies’ and Roberts’ games from when Wales beat them 30-3 back in March of last year. Those are the three highest-rated sides England have played in the last 12 months, and the lads mentioned are six good centers, some of them first rate.
Obviously O’Driscoll’s performance looks even better when contrasted with the performances of the Argentine centers against England last November [a combined 12m run, 0 breaks, 1 defender beaten and 0 offloads] and the poor Scots a couple of weeks ago [a combined 4m, 0 clean breaks, 1 defender beaten, 0 offloads].
Those six English games [vs France and Scotland in this year’s tournament, the three games of the Autumn series against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand, and the last game of last year’s Six Nations] provide context to the performance – England have a very strong, very effective midfield defense. They don’t allow many line-breaks, and they don’t miss many tackles.
You have to go back a year [almost exactly] to find a centre who has racked up better numbers against England, or got more change out of the English midfield. That was when Fofana cut them up – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AvQ3zp21-s – and scored a cracking try. France still lost. And so did Ireland.
Stop Kicking The Ball To Brown? Ireland Didn’t Ever Really Start
English fullback Mike Brown has thus far had terrific showings both in attack and defense, and has established himself as the leading contender for the Six Nations Player of the Tournament. He has carried through his terrific November form [when he was voted England’s Player of the Series] and started off the championship with a couple of red letter performances against France and Scotland, bagging a try in each and particularly shredding the Scottish defense.
Brown had another big match in Twickenham, and back in Montrose after the game, a bow-tied George Hook asked the reasonable question:
“Your man Brown may be the best fullback in Europe. Why should we kick to him?”
Shane Horgan came back with the not entirely convincing:
“I don’t think they kicked to him – I think the ball went to him occasionally.”
That sounded pretty lame, but it’s surprisingly accurate.
Brown’s first possession from an Irish kick came when he made a save-of-the-century effort on Brian O’Driscoll’s clip through of Sexton’s chip [around 02:40], a play that’ll make every highlight reel of the tournament. His second take came from when he ran on to the bounce of a good chip that O’Driscoll had put over the top [around 11:35]: everybody knows that a rugby ball can bounce arseways when you don’t want it to, but in this case in took an English hop, and to compound matters Rob Kearney missed the immediate tackle and O’Driscoll himself missed the follow-up.
The first time that Ireland really kicked the ball to him was his third take of an Irish kick. A long Johnny Sexton punt forced him back into his 22, and Brown marked it, then kicked long back to Sexton [around the 12:00 minute mark]. His fourth take – and last of the half – came on the half hour from a scuffed snap drop goal effort from Rob Kearney after a mix-up between Conor Murray and Mike Ross saw a pass to no-one scoot along the deck behind everyone.
He only got the ball once from an Irish kick in the second half, and that was when he brilliantly took a bomb under stiff competition from Andrew Trimble right on the touchline [at around 51:35], and then somehow released Jonny May with a sneaky offload before he was bundled into touch – a superb piece of fullback play.
So all told, Mike Brown got the ball five times in 80 minutes from Irish kicks. One of those was a goalie’s save, which clearly wasn’t a kick to him; one was a botched drop-goal attempt, which could have gone anywhere and certainly wasn’t intentionally kicked to him; one was a chip which was more or less kicked to him, but bounced before he got there and the Irish backs should have done better with their tackling attempts; one was a kick for which he turned, caught, marked and kicked back to the same person who had kicked it in the first place; and the last was a brilliant take right on the touchline which was very arguably intended as a contestable between Trimble and May, rather than Trimble and Brown.
Ireland knew that Brown was a big threat on the counter and tried to avoid him. Big players find a way to make big plays though, and three of Brown’s efforts – the save, the counter off the bouncing chip, the catch and offload under pressure – were great fullback plays.Caps, Starts and Tournaments
Landmine magnet Neil Francis once wrote an article in the now defunct Sunday Tribune where he outlined an implied hierarchy amongst Irish players regarding test caps. Unfortunately it’s not available online, so you’ll have to rely on The Mole’s scratchy memory of it, but it went something like this:
- World Cup
- Six Nations
- November Internationals
- Summer Tour
My memory of the article is that Franno posited it as a generally agreed-upon subject amongst players of his generation: the World Cup was the one you wanted most, because it only came once every four years, had a huge viewing audience, the biggest stage, was the subject of blanket media coverage across the rugby world [and reasonable coverage across the entire sporting world] etc.
Next up [and close behind] was the Six Nations – it was a tournament, so the games meant something tangible, there’s a huge history and sense of rugby culture behind it which you became a part of once you’ve played in it, there’s a packed house for every match and it dominates sports coverage throughout February and March.
In third place, and lagging a good way behind, came the November internationals – you played in front of your home crowd and [in Franno’s day, only sometimes] against good teams, but there was little at stake, and it carried none of the prestige of the Six Nations. Caps were more easily won in November than they were in February or March.
The last rung was the summer tour, where there was nothing at stake, you were far from home, media coverage was sparse, it was the end of the season and caps were handed out generously to young players or injury stop-gaps.
It’s a theory that makes a good degree of sense, bar the fact that all rugby players primarily play for the free kit you get, and you’d get more on tour than you would for home games. With that proviso aside, it’s worth recapping new caps and first starts over this Six Nations in the light of Franno’s Weighted Cap Scale©:
- First Cap: Marty Moore [22, vs Scotland, 02/02/14], Jordi Murphy [22, @ England, 22/02/14]
- First Start: N/A
- First Six Nations Cap: Marty Moore [22, vs Scotland, 02/02/14], Jack McGrath [24, vs Scotland 02/02/14], Dan Tuohy [28, vs Scotland, 02/02/14], Tommy O’Donnell [26, vs Scotland, 02/02/14], Dave Kearney [24, vs Scotland, 02/02/14]
- First Six Nations Start: Devin Toner [27, vs Scotland, 02/02/14], Dan Tuohy [28, vs Scotland, 02/02/14], Chris Henry [29, vs Scotland, 02/02/14], Dave Kearney [24, vs Scotland, 02/02/14]
Over the next few paragraphs, we’ll focus the lens on the performance in the English game of the three forwards in this group who have played the most rugby in the championship thus far: Chris Henry, Devin Toner and Marty Moore.Chris Henry
Chris Henry topped the Irish tackle count with a flawless 15/0 and headed the Irish Ruck Marks table with a very laudable 110 [0 turnovers, 2 decisives, 30 hits, 4 guards and 4 presents]. While he never quite got the crucial jackal and turnover that brought the commentators’ attentions down on him, he was everywhere the action took place over the 73 minutes he spent on the pitch.
He was Ireland’s second most effective player at the breakdown in the first half with 60 Ruck Marks [17 hits, 3 guards and 4 presents], trailing Peter O’Mahony’s 66, and joint most effective player in the second half with 49 marks [2 decisives, 13 hits, 1 guard] along with captain Paul O’Connell.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Ulster man has ‘effortlessly’ filled the No7 in Sean O’Brien’s absence, because so much of his game is about effort, throwing himself into contact after contact and denying the effects of fatigue. His second half effort at the breakdown was particularly noteworthy: along with being an active participant in 16 rucks [with just one ‘guard’ amongst those involvements, and no ‘presents’ – who made sure all those rucks passed inspection?], he completed 5 tackles that led to English rucks and had 3 carries that led to Irish rucks.
During his 33 minutes on the pitch in the second half there were 55 rucks [25 with the English in possession, 30 when Ireland had possession] and as either ball carrier, tackler or rucker, he was involved in 24 of them – not much shy of 1 in every 2 rucks. That really is a first class work-rate.
Henry’s battle with England skipper and opposite number Chris Robshaw can be seen as the distilled essence of the game: both players played a committed, physical and brave game, with Robshaw just edging it.
Copier Needs More Toner
The Moynalvey-born second row backed up his big game against the Welsh with another strong performance in Twickenham. As The Mole wrote in a previous article, the toughest examination of a second row’s credentials at test level comes against South Africa, but a Six Nations game against England in Twickenham is probably next on the list. The English have long produced some of the best second rows in the world – Johnson, Shaw, Dooley, Beaumont, all the way back to Wavell Wakefield – and take pride above all else in a dominating forward performance on home soil.
They didn’t get a dominant performance at the weekend, but they managed to wrest the upper hand, and in Courtney Lawes [just past his 25th birthday] and Joe Launchbury [just shy of his 23rd], they look to have found a complementary partnership that could take them not just into RWC15, but RWC19 and beyond.
With the scary potential of the English second row duly acknowledged, what about the Irish second row? The Mole holds the opinion that the performances of Toner over the last month have been one of the biggest upsides of the campaign thus far for coach Joe Schmidt.
Toner has dramatically increased his effectiveness at ruck and breakdown since the November series: his best Ruck Mark in that month was a 50 against the All Blacks [0 turnovers, 0 decisives, 14 hits, 2 guards, 7 presents], while he has almost doubled that score in each of the last two games, notching 97 against the Welsh [0 turnovers, 1 decisive, 22 hits, 6 guards and 15 presents] and 90 against England.
Toner’s Ruck Mark of 90 [0 turnovers, 1 decisive, 23 hits, 7 guards, 5 presents] placed him fourth on the list of Irish players, while seeing his 15 ‘presents’ against Wales dwindle to just 5 at the weekend. That’s arguably an improvement – while he may not have been involved in as many rucks as he did against Wales, he produced a more effective involvement at those in which he participated.
His 14/1 tackle count had him second amongst those in green and actually doubled that of his partner in the second row, Paul O’Connell. O’Connell’s workrate at ruck time was typically high [finishing second behind Chris Henry with 109 Ruck Marks – 0 turnovers, 1 decisive, 29 hits, 5 guards and 8 presents] and the Irish scrum and lineout functioned very well, but his work in the open field was ordinary, and sub-par by his high standards.
On two occasions he reverted to some bad habits and fell into English tackles, giving up any leg drive or forward momentum on contact. He spilled the ball forward from a simple two-out pass from Heaslip – maybe he wasn’t expecting it on that occasion, but he gave the same pass twice later on the in game, so it’s clearly something the pack have worked at – and missed three of ten attempted tackles.
Moore Moore Moore
Moore was the first-used of the Irish subs, replacing fellow Leinster tighthead Mike Ross after 61 minutes. The veteran had had a surprisingly busy outing with ball in hand – carrying four times for 9m – and made a rake of good tackles, completing 11 of his 12 attempts. As with Paul O’Connell, his contribution to the success of the Irish set pieces cannot go overlooked: the Irish scrum had the upper hand practically throughout the game, and the lineout was again well-varied and productive.
However, Ross struggled somewhat with his involvement at the breakdown. While in the Welsh game he had accumulated a very respectable 58 Ruck Marks over his 53 minutes on the pitch [0 turnover, 1 decisive, 11 hits, 7 guards, 7 presents], in the English game he left with just 30 [5 hits, 3 guards, 9 presents] to his name after 61 minutes. The difference between the two marks is predicated on the number of tackles he had to make in each game – while in the English match, as mentioned above, he was forced to make 12 tackles, he was only forced into 5 tackles [4/1] in the Welsh game.
20 stone tightheads aren’t going to give you a huge amount of down-and-ups. They can’t very often make a tackle, bounce back on to their feet and go jackalling for the ball like a backrow or a centre does.
It’s important to give context to Moore’s Ruck Mark of 46 in 19 minutes [12 hits, 5 guards]. While it outshone Ross’s efforts over an hour at the breakdown, Ireland had possession for almost the entire time he was on the pitch, putting together 42 rucks to England’s 6. Moore wasn’t put upon to make a single tackle, and with Ireland wary of kicking the ball away late in the game, there were a significant number of rucks in the same area of the pitch: the Castleknock man could look up from one ruck, see the next one three or four metres ahead and plow into it.
Still, it’s a great effort from the 22 year old. He took on a couple of full-tilt carries, and threw himself into every contact situation. This is a guy who played more B&I Cup games last season than Pro12 games, and yet he has now played as much Six Nations rugby [64 minutes – 18 minutes against Scotland, 27 minutes against Wales, 19 minutes against England] as he did in the league in 2012-13, without looking out of his depth.
Maybe The Mole falls into Neil Francis’ “small margins brigade”, but I’m alright with that. That was a tough, tight game, and the margin for error was pretty small.
There was a fairly strong air of disappointment from Irish supporters in the aftermath. Somewhere between the Welsh and English games, there seemed to have been a general swing in the mood from “all we want is consistency of performance” to “GRAND SLAM GRAND SLAM GRAND SLAM!”
However, it’s worth remembering that Ireland finished second from bottom in last year’s table and won just one game. The year before that, we won two. The year before that, we won three. It would have been a reasonably neat little run if we had won four in 2010, but unfortunately, we only won three that year too.
Under Declan Kidney’s stewardship, Ireland went on quite a slide from the start of 2010 onwards, and lost a fair bit of the confidence that is important – maybe pivotal – in winning close games.
I don’t know what the formula is to winning tight games; I don’t even know if there is one. The phrase “winning is a habit, and so is losing” isn’t without its own degree of truth, but it doesn’t really give much insight. Smoking is a habit, but it’s easy to start compared to how difficult it can be to quit. Winning is conversely a difficult habit to start, and an easier habit to lose.
I’m not sure you start winning tight matches that you had previously been edged out in just because you change coach. Changing head coach brought a slam in 2009 on the back of a poor, two-win performance in 2008 … but Ireland had won back-to-back Triple Crowns in four-win efforts in 2006 and 2007. Furthermore, it would be obtuse to overlook the enormous contribution that our greatest ever player, having the best season of his fifteen year test career, made to our championship win in 2009.
The 2007-08 season, with its horrific World Cup and abject Six Nations, saw Eddie O’Sullivan’s coaching career absolutely collapse in about eight months. A couple of poor performances in the pre-RWC August friendlies saw the rot kick in, and he pulled the shutters down and walked away four days after the heavy loss in Twickenham that closed the Six Nations. Essentially, all the crap results happened in one season, the coach jumped rather than was pushed, and the wound was cauterized pretty quickly.
The road back may be a little longer this time. The last time Ireland faced Italy, we lost by a clear seven point margin, failed to score a try and only ever led for eight of the eighty minutes. Obviously there were peculiar circumstances in that game – namely Ireland losing three backs in the first half to injury – but the result still stands as the record of the last match between the two teams.
However, Italy have typically been much more competitive when at home in the championship than when on the road. While they’ve been a livelier, more competitive team under Brunel than they were under Mallett, the loss of Zanni and especially Parisse loads the deck in Ireland’s favour. Parisse has long been the Italian’s playmaker, in both the English and the American senses of the word: he makes many of the attacking decisions for his side, and he’s also directly involved in most of their brightest moments. In the Italian’s first match of the tournament against Wales, he had 29 possessions compared to outhalf Tommaso Allen’s 23; in the game against France he had 28 compared to Allen’s 29, and the number only really faltered against Scotland, where he had 17 to Allen’s 23 [incidentally, Allen scored 13 points that day].
In comparison, Jamie Heaslip had 23 possessions to Sexton’s 50 against England; 13 to Sexton’s 31 against Wales; and 20 to Sexton’s 41 against Scotland. There’s a lot of work in there from Heaslip, but it’s clear that Ireland’s direction comes from the No10. Parisse really is the dominant figure in the Italian side – not just a talisman – and he’s a huge loss.