Ireland half backs decisive in Aviva Stadium victory
Ireland and France was the expected arm wrestle that many rugby observers expected; squally conditions further reduced the expansive nature of this contest which increased the focus of game management from the half backs and this battle was emphatically won by Ireland as Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton provided tactical nous and scoring threat to seal a ten point victory.
Murray’s performance on Saturday was sublime. His box kicking was on point throughout, exit strategy was well executed throughout with long kicks to relieve Ireland’s defensive lines. Murray distribution from the ruck was accurate and allowed Sexton the sufficient time to attempt to launch his three quarters.
What makes Murray such a threat is his work with or without the ball. His ability to create tries from close range is a real standout this season; his poacher style try from good Ireland pack work was due reward for an enterprising opening period but his ability to stop attacks with excellent defensive cover tackles seen at various intervals of the contest.
Sexton belied his lack of game time to produce an excellent performance. His place kicking was on point throughout and his game management in open play provided Ireland with several standout moments. His quick thinking nearly yielded a try in the opening period when France thought the Leinster player would go for the posts; launched a quick tap and go which set the platform for Murray’s try a couple of minutes later.
Sexton’s ability to flirt with the game line to engage defenders and launch his runners is a standout; he takes sometimes undue punishment for this approach but the fly-half always gives his colleagues the best opportunity to gain game lines. This was an impressive cameo; he really confounded my assertions last week illustrated by his emphatic drop goal in the second half, all the more impressive given the wet conditions.
With Ireland’s half backs in dominant form, France were facing an uphill struggle. They were competitive in a physically abrasive opening period and tried to launch attacks from any area of the pitch.
Fickou and Picamoles looked formidable early door with some impressive ball carries but France were unable to make their first quarter territorial dominance convert into points, a period where they emphatically won the breakdown area slowing down Ireland ball and punishing the hosts whenever ball carriers were isolated.
The conditioning issues of France did surface in the second half; Ireland’s pack increased the tempo in the third quarter and France penalties soon followed opening up the ten point lead which was ultimately the gap at the final whistle.
This was a game of attrition. Both defenses by and large ruled the roost despite a couple of line breaks in the opening period. Ireland’s inability to carve out line breaks for Henshaw is a worry. The Leinster three quarter work rate has being stellar in this tournament but his game line yards have being low.
Ringrose has being the focal point of the three quarter attacks; providing stealth running lines while Henshaw has being the battering ram for initial phase platforms. Wales and England defensively will be stiff tests but there needs to be more balance in the three quarters with both players possessing pace and power to make the required ball carrying impact.
Ireland’s back row balance issues surfaced on Saturday. No dynamic seven to compete effectively at the breakdown was exposed more than once with the French having the upperhand in this department. Josh van der Flier’s absence was felt particularly in the opening period where Ireland struggled to retain possession due to slow support for the ball carrier.
Tommy O’Donnell potentially has to come into the equation against the Welsh; his pace and competitiveness in the breakdown area will be required against a highly talent Wales back row but realistically Schmidt will probably retain the players who started against French. Stander, Heaslip and O’Brien carried endless ball throughout but there is a dynamism missing in this unit which will be punished by more clued in back row opposition units starting with the Welsh.
France will continue to experiment for the duration of this tournament. Media reports suggest that the French Rugby Union will look to setup a contract based system for their elite players (forty players), a good move and one that will reap rewards in terms of continuity and cohesion.
There have being good signs from Le Bleu; the willingness to attack from anywhere is admirable but the accuracy and precision that comes with this approach has being lacking. The penalty count in the second half was too high and on another day Nigel Owens could have issued a yellow card(s) for the visitors due to their offside infringements.
To ruck or not to ruck England
Credit to Conor O’Shea and Italian management for absolutely snookering England for the opening period to the extent that Eddie Jones threw his toys out of the pram. It was a deliberate move from Jones; switching the focus away from his players and honing the media down the avenue of ruck laws. His players failed to adapt to the challenge that was presented by the Azzuri, evident in the exchange between Hartley and Haskell with Poite who reminded them that he was the referee and not the coach.
The approach from O’Shea and Italy was admirable; nothing to lose attitude in the opening period should have being rewarded with more points on the board but their lack of a quality goal kicker was exposed. Allan is an average ten. His body language at the penalties presented did not inspire confidence but his reaction after missing was pathetic, smiling away to his colleagues (looked out of more relief).
Italy need to identify a reliable number ten, if that means looking for a SH player and securing residency, then so be it. Each penalty miss was a smack in the face to the likes of Parisse who was stellar with ball carries and leadership. Parisse was sensational yesterday, had Hughes in his pocket early doors.
5-10 at the interval was the minimum England expected from a dour opening period. There are now serious questions on the England captaincy. Hartley’s inability to take in the information from Poite on the ruck laws spoke volumes; his leadership was muted in that opening period and his colleagues were ponderless.
Even Owen Farrell celebrating his fifty cap had a shaky first half but he stepped up to the plate in the second half to provide the platform in open play to setup victory, something Hartley failed to do.
How Jack Nowell is not starting for England is another subplot from yesterday’s game? His street smarts shone with a quick brace of tries. His ability to spot mismatches and gaps is excellent, game smarts were in short supply from England but this was one player who stepped up to the plate.
Maro Itoje is now the leader of the England pack; his performance was immense. Itoje is a good six but is a different player when switched to the second row. England’s scrum started to assert dominance in the second half when the switch was made and his lineout threat and athleticism in open field shone through. Itoje is a Lions test match player already.
The ruck laws do not need to be redefined; SH teams such as the Chiefs vary the no ruck tactic to keep opposition on their toes. It is up to teams to read the tactic and either smash through the middle or engage players in the ruck area. I thought it was a fascinating tactical switch; expect more NH teams to experiment with the tactic. Intriguing end to this tournament beckons as Scotland and Ireland may test England’s game reading of this tactic. England collectively need to adapt and that includes Matt Dawson.
Scotland pounce to beat blunt Wales
Scotland have being the standout team of this tournament. Their welcome resurgence continues with a superb sixteen point victory at Murrayfield. The hosts had to soak up Wales pressure in the opening period but their second half showed creativity and precision which was sorely lacking from the visitors.
Liam Williams continues to impress in this tournament; has being the leading back for the Welsh. His opening try was well worked. Wales presenting quick ruck ball to their explosive backs where Davies found Williams to score in the corner.
Wales enjoyed dominance in the opening half and should have had more points on the board but lack of discipline (Webb hold back) after a massive game line break emphasized the point and was a turning point in the contest.
Scotland survived the onslaught and their pack started to create the platform for the likes of Hogg to impress out wide. His attacking line and pass to Seymour at the end of the half was a sign of things to come in the second half and the hosts built on this promise with two well worked tries.
The first Scotland try had a hint of obstruction (running line of Jones potentially impeding Welsh defenders) but Visser to Seymour pass was sublime and the Glasgow Warrior did well to touchdown. The second try was to do with Russell and Hogg; their awarness of space, the speed of pass pivotal to setup Visser to score from close range.
A fixture which on the basis of the first half performance in recent seasons could have seen Scotland drop the heads and accept their fate but this is a different team under the departing Vern Cotter. There is a steel about this group of players to knuckle down when the pressure is exerted by opponents and their precision and accuracy is improved with ball in hand.
No pressure for Scotland against England; it will be interesting to see how Scotland attempt to disrupt England’s game plan while possessing an edge in their attacking play. Optimism and confidence should be high for Scotland, should be an intriguing contest.
Where now for Wales? A performance which lacked cohesion and some players looked devoid of ideas to get back into the contest. The back line again was starved of quality ball at times particularly in the opening period. The pack were well beaten at the end of the contest. Will Howley wield the changes for Ireland? Nothing to lose but several Welsh players are playing themselves out of the Lions tour; a reaction is required against Ireland.