Three games, 11 penalties conceded. Green may be their colour but Ireland have been whiter than white in the eyes of Mathieu Raynal, Jaco Peyper, and Jerome Garces this month. If the national team doesn’t have an official washing-up supplier, then now would be a damn good time for the IRFU to go to market.
It’s a natural fit, even if they’re no angels.
Ian Henderson’s clearout of Stephen Moore in the run-up to Garry Ringrose’s try was a glaring example of that. The Australian captain was chaperoned away from the action whilst miles from its epicentre but it happened away from the glare of the referee and, crucially, beyond the frame of the TV replays.
Try, Ireland. Move along folks, nothing to see here...
Coaches and players talk about adapting to the referee all the time. About playing to the limit of the laws. DVDs are studied, a ref’s likes and dislikes noted. If the mantra is that you have to “paint a good picture” for officials, then Ireland have been the game’s Picasso this last four weeks.
“It something we talk about and Joe (Schmidt) talks a lot about discipline,” said CJ Stander. “We can drive that as a collective. If you can keep a team below 10 penalties in a game you have a good chance of winning but if you can keep it lower than five, then the chance of winning is way up there. We work for each other, we work hard, we don’t let ourselves down and (the team) by giving away silly penalties. It is a collective thing we have worked on coming out of the Six Nations where we made a few bad decisions at the breakdown or went offside.”
Ireland’s discipline has been nothing short of astonishing. Referees award roughly 70% of penalties to attacking sides but Ireland didn’t dominate possession. Well, only in patches. They more or less broke against the All Blacks twice before finishing with 58% of the ball against the Wallabies. So it hasn’t just been a case of avoiding infringements via attacking rugby. Ireland were made defend for long and strenuous periods and demonstrated an ability to keep their hands clean while rolling up their sleeves and seeing to the necessary dirty work.
The one anomaly was Canada, when the second-string coughed up nine penalties. Normally a perfectly acceptable figure in any Test match, it stands instead as an unwanted outlier when framed against the other shifts, particularly when the lower quality of the North Americans is factored in.
Ireland’s back row is a good place to start when putting all this into context.
Between them, Stander, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Josh van der Flier, and Peter O’Mahony made 76 tackles and engaged in God knows how many rucks across the three games against the Antipodean powers. Total penalties conceded by that unit? Three.
There may even be an argument that Ireland should transgress more as 13 tries conceded across the quartet of Tests has handed Schmidt plenty of ammunition with which to bring his high-flyers back down to earth before the Six Nations.
Added to that is the manner in which they have let South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia reel in big leads this last five months. It seems like nit-picking now in the afterglow of a superb series but Stander agrees it’s an area that requires attention.
“It is something we spoke about a lot. When we played South Africa in the second test, we were up 19-3 or six and we let them back in. We almost got there again. (Australia) were 17-0 down and they got a try before half-time and they got back into it.
“You can’t let that happen against teams like New Zealand and Australia. We need to clamp down on that. There is a belief in the team. We are a collective and we work hard for each other and we can let ourselves down like that. In fairness, the game went our way in the end but we didn’t make it easy for ourselves.”
That will be music to Joe Schmidt’s ears.
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