Suf­fer­ing scrum started slow slide to sub­ju­ga­tion

I fear we’ve seen the last of some great Ir­ish play­ers and the first of an English team with many be­com­ing great

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby Six Nations - LIAM TOLAND RUGBY AN­A­LYST liamtoland@ya­hoo.com

WHERE DOES a top-end ath­lete sum­mon his en­ergy? If you’re at home in Twick­en­ham with new coaches and new faces then a scrum penalty try is a good place to start. I pre­dicted about 15 scrums last Fri­day and hoped Ire­land would ne­go­ti­ate the first five be­fore match fa­tigue would even out the bal­ance. There were 18 scrums in to­tal and the penalty try on 58 min­utes fired up the English, with bear hug em­braces and en­er­gis­ers that coaches could only dream of. The score had been 12-9 and for all their dom­i­nance in the scrum this was a big seven points. It had the op­po­site ef­fect on Ire­land. Bench­mark­ing can be a dan­ger­ous process but league ta­bles do that au­to­mat­i­cally. Ire­land came a re­spectable third, one ahead of France but any ex­plo­ration of the ac­tu­al­i­ties will tell you that in a very short space of time Wales have built a Grand Slam team while Eng­land in a ridicu­lously short space have built a cul­ture all can be proud of. There is a crack­ing case study to be com­pleted at PHD level in ex­plain­ing how Har­lequins and Eng­land can turn aw­ful cul­tures so quickly.

Last I com­mented how “nice” it was to see Tomás O’leary back but ques­tioned Isaac Boss or Paul Mar­shall’s ab­sence, hint­ing they’re in bet­ter form. In Mar­shall’s case he is full of top-end en­ergy that could ex­ploit tir­ing de­fences, a la Ben Youngs.

It hasn’t been an easy few months for O'leary. That said he came on very early and tried to ef­fect change but lacks the top-end matches and honed skills-set to do so.

I searched for Tom Court as O’leary car­ried the ball over his own line in a poorly-judged decision that would not have oc­curred in for­mer times. What must have gone through Court’s mind as ref­eree Nigel Owens in­di­cated a five-me­tre scrum to Eng­land: ‘You caused the scrum you can go into tight­head; let’s swap’.

Can one iso­late the scrum in analysing the in­di­vid­ual and the team? Clearly not as so much dam­age was in­flicted on the Ir­ish team. Phys­i­cally, there was the ex­haus­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by the sec­ondrows as they tried to but­tress their fron­trow in po­si­tion.

“I may go down but I’ll never go back” springs to mind. I can’t re­call our pack ek­ing out re­cov­ery time be­tween scrums. Dare I sug­gest the Six Na­tions af­fords just one spare prop so had Tom Court stayed down in­jured the scrum would have drifted to un­con­tested?

Was this dis­cussed in the stands as it’s an op­tion? What dif­fer­ence Paul O’con­nell (or a healthy Mike Ross) would have made be­hind Cian Healy we’ll never know.

You can come back from a scrum on­slaught like this where Ross has the brains and abil­ity to ed­u­cate his pack on the lessons learned. Apart from Le­in­ster’s re­vival against Northamp­ton in Cardiff it’s very un­usual to ex­pe­ri­ence that in real time. Ob­vi­ously re­duc­ing the num­ber of scrums was a first start, hence O’leary’s ex­tremely costly er­ror.

Apart from the ob­vi­ous cheating op­tion of un­con­tested scrums there is an­other “half cheat”: I’m very sur­prised the Ir­ish didn’t pull the clas­sic step back on the hit op­tion. It’s been utilised for years where, un­der pres­sure, es­pe­cially on your own line, all eight hit but im­me­di­ately step back al­low­ing the op­po­si­tion to fol­low through on their hit, with the scrumhalf shout­ing “early hit, ref” and you get a cheap free kick, which is worth gold to the front five.

Did the Ire­land man­age­ment dis­cuss this and other op­tions at half-time? Maybe that 28th-minute turnover wheel scrum suc­cess sug­gested the English were fa­tigu­ing.

The phys­i­cal was one as­pect but the men­tal is al­to­gether an­other. We have all been in sit­u­a­tions where tremen­dous work has been done but then some­thing hor­ri­ble oc­curs and back into yet an­other scrum you go. That those hor­ri­ble things were in the most part avoid­able was deeply dam­ag­ing: kick­ing out on the full, poor han­dling and poor util­i­sa­tion of the back line at cru­cial times were bad enough, but 21 turnovers suf­fo­cated any chances.

I had sug­gested Ir­ish con­trol over the break­down would con­trol the fix­ture. In many ways this proved cor­rect as ruck af­ter ruck, I counted the English speed of re­cy­cle. Four in a row os­cil­lated from five sec­onds to 10 in what was a mon­u­men­tal break­down per­for­mance by the Ir­ish team.

So much so the clas­sic fall guy in these oc­ca­sions was taken off on 48 min­utes in an ef­fort to speed up the game and turn their con­sid­er­able scrum ad­van­tage into more points. Lee Dickson at scrumhalf was the vil­lain and Youngs the hero, es­pe­cially on scor­ing their sec­ond try.

The real men were the Ir­ish at the break­down, with Seán O’brien, Don­nacha Ryan and Healy lead­ing the way. Had Ire­land not slowed the English flow to over five sec­onds on al­most ev­ery ruck over the 80 min­utes who knows what the score would have been? Hence a pow­er­ful work ethic in ter­ri­ble con­di­tions from the Ir­ish which high­lights the cul­ture is there but the many weak­nesses are un­for­tu­nately there too.

Nei­ther team lit the stage cre­atively and you would ar­gue Eng­land had the much bet­ter op­por­tu­nity but failed. I counted a grand to­tal of three car­ries by Manusamoa Tuilagi where Gor­don D’arcy hit him side on and then front on but he did no dam­age and Ire­land’s de­fen­sive sys­tem de­serves credit.

Much of the Ir­ish back­line at­tack strug­gled to fix the English and pre­cious few op­por­tu­ni­ties ar­rived to Keith Earls, who clearly had the pace and feet to evade the mon­sters in mid­field on 66 min­utes.

From the break­down, O’leary ran side­ways be­fore kick­ing for the corner to the chas­ing Jamie Heaslip; a poor decision and ex­e­cu­tion. Heaslip spent much time on the flanks. I’m not sure it is a team tac­tic but he has been strug­gling to get into the games and hang­ing around the wings takes him fur­ther away.

The sub­sti­tu­tions high­light De­clan Kid­ney’s ap­proach. Both O’leary and Ro­nan O’gara came on very early, and jus­ti­fi­ably so. Both have been sig­nif­i­cant play­ers in Kid­ney’s ca­reer and he trusts them. That clearly can’t be said of Fer­gus Mcfad­den, a cen­tre em­ployed on the wing when the first-choice out­half moves into cen­tre, nor of Seán Cronin, given six min­utes at the end of the most fa­tigu­ing fix­ture Rory Best is li­able to ex­pe­ri­ence.

I fear we’ve seen the last of some great Ir­ish play­ers and the first of an English team with many be­com­ing great.

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