Ireland deny England the Grand Slam
England’s dreams of securing the Triple Crown, Grand Slam and the tier one nation record for consecutive games won was well and truly smashed by Ireland in Dublin. This was a performance which Joe Schmidt will look at and reflect on what might have being. The lack of balance in the back row unit has being well documented on this blog but the late change in the starting lineup which brought Peter O’Mahoney in for the hamstrung Jamie Heaslip was a blessing in-disguise.
O’Mahoney had the proverbial blinder and provided Ireland management with ample proof that his exclusion from the starting fifteen before this fixture was a poor managerial call from Ireland management. O’Mahoney’s performance on Saturday showcased all his strengths; abrasive, physicality, intense work rate in the breakdown and loose and more importantly for Ireland and Rory Best a valuable reliable third line-out jumper for the side. His line-out steal at the end of this contest was a pivotal turning point just when England were starting to build momentum deep in Ireland territory. A magnificent performance and one which has propelled O’Mahoney as a late contender for a Lions tour party berth.
Where did it all go wrong for England? There are a combination of factors at play. The inclement weather conditions did make this test match a proverbial lottery; ball handling in the swirling wind caused havoc for both sides and England perhaps were overly aggressive in their play management early doors giving Ireland good field position.
The occasion also played a factor; there were nerves in the England side in that opening period. Ireland dominated possession and territory and really should have being more than seven points in front. George Ford had a mixed afternoon in open play; his kicks from open play are often predictable and even setup Ireland field possession kicking into touch on the full on a couple of occasions. The performance from the fly-half unsettled other players around him.
The England pack were outgunned by an Ireland pack who played with no pressure or abandonment. Donnacha Ryan managed the lineout sensibly in the inclement weather conditions. The addition of O’Mahoney was a key win in this set piece. The scrum was superbly contested; ebbed and flowed throughout. Furlong was sensational again and had Marler under pressure from the first exchanges. Henderson and Toner provided valuable cameos. Henderson’s work rate was infectious; his ball carrying to the fore. Toner provided much needed energy in the second half.
The Ireland back row rejig was more of an issue for England as the hosts back row produced a much more cohesive performance. Itoje’s influence was considerably reduced and his frustration showed; lucky not to be sanctioned for a late hit on Sexton in the opening period.
Hartley’s captaincy again is under the microscope; an under-performing England side looked to their captain to lead from the front but Hartley was below par. Jamie George’s inclusion could not come any sooner. Lions tour squad berth perhaps but it would be a fatal mistake for Warren Gatland to appoint the Northampton player as captain. When his side has struggled in this tournament, Hartley’s composure (interpret referee instructions against Italy in the opening half) and leadership has being lacking.
The most pleasing aspect for Ireland was the emergence of two potential incumbents to the scrum-half position. Marmion provided an excellent reminder to Ireland management of his worth with a composed, assured display. His box kicking was on point and his decision making behind the ruck was on point during his performance. Luke McGrath’s debut was sublime; his game management in the last ten minutes was on point. His kick into touch with three minutes left was as good as a score. Murray’s loss was offset by the cameos of these two players and hopefully Ireland management will give them more of an opportunity to impress during the November internationals.
Ireland win but the key result was the previous weekend; time to reflect and take stock of the issues which have emerged from this tournament. The continual development of Ringrose at thirteen will continue to reap rewards long term. Henshaw’s all action display is the baseline for future performances. Jared Payne at full-back added a new dimensional to Ireland behind the scrum and his defensive organization was a key plus. Earls, Conway and Zebo were dangerous with ball in hand. Earls was unlucky not to score a try at least in that opening period. His injury will be monitored by Munster closely.
England did win the championship; they have being the best team in the tournament but issues did emerge last Saturday. Eddie Jones will scrutinize the video footage but the team is in an upward curve but there has to be reduced dependency on Billy Vunipola to create attacking platforms. Vunipola was kept well under wraps by Ireland and England’s attack stalled as a result. Ireland’s aggressive fast defensive line also posed issues for England which could not solve. Andy Farrell defensively did a number on his former employers. Food for thought for England but it could be the reality check required to refocus minds for future assignments.
France win controversially
This is a fixture which will be discussed for many weeks to come. The head assessment to Antonio was extremely dubious at best but the inability of Wayne Barnes to stamp his authority on this contest was highlighted in the exchanges at the end of the contest. France were aggrieved that Wales being consistently penalized at scrum-time did not yield the penalty try at the death. Wales on the other hand were very displeased on certain aspects of play. George North’s biting allegation needs to be investigated and if there is a case to answer, then the book should be thrown at the France player who perpetuated the action.
It was a farcical end to a thrilling test match. Wales were superb in pulling themselves off the canvas after a horrible opening quarter. 10-0 down with a jubilant home crowd in tow, Wales could have let the heads drop but Rob Howley’s side steadied the ship superbly. The Wales pack fronted up with Jones, Tipuric, Warburton, Moriarty to the fore. The penalty battle was swinging towards Wales and Halfpenny was on point with his goal kicking. North and Williams provided good moments. North’s work rate was infectious during the contest; his breakdown in the first half was an inspirational point.
The closing exchanges will need to be reviewed by World Rugby. Several points were raised and Wayne Barnes is looking bereft of confidence at present. The lack of decision making at the breakdown is at odds with SH and other NH officiating crews. It created messy ruck ball for both sides and the game as a spectacle suffered. The more significant issue was with the Antonio substitution in injury time; went against the ethos of the game. Antonio looked good but was called ashore to allow a more efficient scrummager to come on. The bite incident allegation is unsavory but Barnes at this point had lost total control of the game. Controversial ending, left a bad taste in the mouth.
Scotland secure predictable BP win over hapless Italy
29-0. Italy’s saving grace was that the inclement weather conditions appeared in Murrayfield. Parisse again struck a forlorn figure at times; trying to break several tackles and win the contest on his own and not depend on his colleagues entrusted with penalty kicking duties which bordered on shambolic. Three missed penalties in the opening period with the first two efforts viably kick-able was a real kick to the teeth. For international test match standard, it was wholly unacceptable.
Scotland were professional. They defended when required with efficiency, stealing ball from the Italians when isolated in their twenty-two. Hogg at full back had an excellent game. His contribution for the second Scotland try was superb; great assist palming the ball back to his colleague. Hogg has being the standout fifteen in this tournament; his piercing runs from deep, ability to find space and get colleagues involved to the fore. The result was never in doubt.
Finn Russell bounced back from a wretched England performance. His opening try was well taken and his kicking was on point. Russell will need to impress with Glasgow Warriors in Europe to win a berth in the Lions tour. Vern Cotter leaves the side in good shape; most improved side in the competition. Continuity in team selection has helped, more clinical on both sides of the ball. England did inflict a serious hiding on Scotland but they were competitive all the other games with the wins against Ireland and Wales the standouts.
The profile of the squad is young so expect more improvement from this group. The Gray brothers, Strauss, Jones are key personnel going forward. The team now has viable leadership throughout the pitch and the new incumbent head coach will have plenty to work with next season. When you add that several Scottish players will get heading on the Lions, the quality and experience of the summer tour can only benefit the side.
For Italy, this was a terrible championship. A spirited opening forty minutes against Wales at home is the highlight. Otherwise, it is a championship which exposed the Azzuri in all facets of play. Lack of precision with ball in hand. Penalty guzzling in the set piece. An ineffective half-back partnership which has not created any go forward to a back line who continue to struggle for cohesion.
Parisse aside, there is a lack of star quality in this outfit. Italian underage development needs to unearth players or else it will be a case of fact finding in SH to identify players to fill the gaps (cynical but needs to happen). The fact that Georgia and RBS 6 Nations inclusion is enough; Italy need to improve pronto for the tournament to be taken as a viable competition. Conor O’Shea has inherited an absolute mess but if there is one man to turn a rugby program around, it is the Irish man, look at the job he produced at Harlequins.