AS sure as night follows day, a tight result in a Test match will result in a barrage of hindsight-informed criticism being directed at the decisions made by the losing side.
Following Ireland’s defeat to France on Saturday evening, the bulk of this has focused on the call to take three points rather than go to the corner when they trailed by six with 71 minutes on the clock.
The ‘take the points or go to the corner’ debate is one of the most frustrating elements of post-match analysis, from pundits, journalists, and supporters alike.
That’s because it always ignores everything but the final outcome. Whatever decision was made, and whatever the feeling on the pitch was in the moment, if it doesn’t result in a victory then it was automatically the wrong call.
Few people that know me would say I take a conservative approach to decisions in life, but when it comes to this particular conundrum, I might as well be Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. If the points are there on a platter and there is time to score again, then I say take them every time.
It’s a different story if you are in the last three or four minutes and this might be your final chance to get points on the board, but if you have eight full minutes on the clock and are in the ascendancy, having seized control of the game’s momentum like Ireland had, taking the easier option is the logical thing to do.
A simple analysis of the different variables illustrates why. A shot at goal only has one element; the kicker attempting to strike the ball over the bar. This isn’t straightforward by any means, but at that stage of the game we could all see that Joey Carbery was having a strong day off the tee. It was in a part of the field that a kicker of his quality would back himself to score from 99% of the time.
Sending the ball to the corner isn’t quite as simple. The lineout call has to be the correct one. The movement on the ground, lift and jump have to be executed well. The throw has to be spot on, particularly if there is any risk the opposition will compete in the air, as France had done throughout the game. After that, the maul set up has to weather any defensive blitz before trying to get enough forward momentum to edge towards the line.
If it all comes off, as happened for Josh van der Flier’s try, everyone is laughing. But if not, you now find yourself trying to penetrate a wall of defenders that are protecting their goal line like a mother bear protecting her young. There is little or no backfield for them to worry about, so you have at least 14, if not 15 men in the front line. Space is at a premium and if you lose one or two collisions in attack, it becomes very, very difficult to convert your possession into points.
You go through phase after phase, which itself runs down the clock. And if you do end up losing possession — which happens a lot — you might now have half amount of time to win the ball back and work your way down the field to have another crack at doing the same thing. Many people seem to believe that a lineout deep in the opposition 22 is as good as a try, when the reality is altogether different. The strike rate is much lower than you might think. And if you fail to convert, it deals a massive psychological blow to know you could have had three easy points but are now leaving empty handed.
Lots of the chatter I have seen points to van der Flier’s try as evidence that Ireland would have been likely to score again. Few enough people, however, are pointing out that the lineout seven metres from the French line that followed Tadgh Beirne’s outrageous 50/22 kick four minutes earlier was stolen, and a loose pass from the base of a ruck saw Ireland finding themselves back in their own 22 shortly after.
After Carbery converted, France held possession well and the lead became six points again.
Ireland found themselves 30 metres from the French line with their opponents on the back foot with 60 seconds left to play. They were still in a position to score but couldn’t quite get the execution right. Taking the shot at goal wasn’t to blame for the unforced handling error that saw them give up possession, along with their last chance to win.
I WAS at the Stade de France for the first time for Saturday’s game. In addition to the buzz you get from experiencing a match live, it gives you a great opportunity to look more closely at certain players, and gain a better appreciation for the unseen work they do. I was excited to watch Antoine Dupont live, and he didn’t disappoint.
Most people would say that what makes him the best player is his ability to break the line and score tries. And if you asked most people why he scores so many tries, they would probably just say he’s so often in the right place at the right time. But there’s more to it than that.
You can coach certain things in rugby, and you can’t coach others. A player can do drills to improve, but you can’t coach someone to sidestep like Cheslin Kolbe, or be as immovable over the ball as Tadgh Beirne. One of the least coachable traits you can find is anticipation. The ability to see what’s going to happen before anyone else does. Anticipation is one of the things that sets Antoine Dupont apart from the rest.
It’s no coincidence that he scores so many tries by taking offloads from team-mates who have found a soft shoulder and gotten a hand free. His score at the beginning of the game was a textbook example of this. Rather than expect a tackle and a breakdown and arc his run accordingly, Dupont always assumes that something is going to happen. As soon as Ntamack decided to go, Dupont ran upfield to be an option.
Ntamack knows this trait in his scrum-half so well that he didn’t actually look where he was offloading the ball to. He threw it inside and knew someone would be there. Yoram Moefana was the first option but was so heavily marshalled he could do nothing but let the ball sail by. That didn’t matter, because Dupont was exactly where he needed to be, receiving in space and sprinting over untouched.
Of course, it’s easy to point out the occasions when he gets the ball and scores. It’s difficult to see on TV unless you’re watching a wide angle, but Dupont makes 20 or 30 runs like this in every match he plays. In fact, it’s not unusual to see him five or six metres higher up the field than his team-mate in possession of the ball, because he has gotten a sniff that the line will be broken.
After the quick lineout in the first minute which ultimately led to his try, Dupont took more or less the opposite angle to every other French player and ran towards the corner flag, having seen that Gabin Villiere was in space. Nothing came of it, but he did the same thing 25 seconds later and scored.
Similarly in the 53rd minute, off a scrum on the right hand touchline that ultimately led to Ireland losing a lineout and Cyril Baille crashing over, Dupont ran such an exaggerated line upfield that at one point he was 15 metres ahead of Moefan, who was in possession. Again, nothing came of it this time, but on another day there’s a linebreak and Dupont is running in another trademark finish.
One contrasting Irish example came in the 47th minute, when Ireland ran the ball from just outside their own 22. Tadgh Furlong gave the ball out the back to Hugo Keenan, who spotted space in front of him and made a 40 metre gallop up the centre of the field.
Van der Flier came tearing up his inside in support and although Keenan couldn’t get the ball away to him, he was the only person in a position to receive a pass. Jameson Gibson-Park had run laterally, expecting a breakdown in the middle of the field.
He could very well have run a Dupont- style line on another occasion, but he didn’t, and in that moment I was struck by a subtle but powerful difference between the two.