MEAT AND DRINK, KID
I still haven’t found the definitive camera angle to show where and what George Ford and Owen Farrell were doing when Chris Robshaw made that decision to go for the win at Twickenham on Saturday night. Was Farrell staring at the ground, looking at his boots? Was Ford happily executing his captain’s choice to kick to touch? Maybe they weren’t. But if they were a bit shy about the prospect of kicking a penalty to draw the match, are you going to point the finger?
Because I’m not. That’s a captain’s call, and that’s what sets the likes of Paul O’Connell apart. The small things the public never see. The difference between O’Connell and Chris Robshaw was epitomised in that moment. If that was Paulie playing for England (Heaven forbid...), he doesn’t give you that call. He points towards the posts. He directs you. I don’t blame Farrell or Ford because I’ve been that soldier, but in those moments, O’Connell has decided for me and said ‘you’re kicking it’.
There’s this popular perception that I never shirked from the big kicks. Of course I did. Or at least I wanted to. Everyone’s human and the easy option there for the ten is kick it in the corner. That’s the beauty of your captain. He’d say ‘Rog, you’ll kick that no problem’. With those five words, he inspires you with confidence. You just feel now you have to deliver for him.
Other captains might say ‘what are you thinking?’. ‘Do you fancy it?’ ‘Will you get it?’ That’s the wrong message and only serves to scramble your head more. The great captains know - O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, Mick Galwey - what to say. You don’t forget those votes of confidence easily.
‘Meat and drink to you, Rog’.
‘Knock it over, kid.’
LANCASTER’S LAST STAND
The delirium in the Welsh camp was in stark contrast Saturday to the utter shock and disbelief amongst the England squad. How they failed to win a game with such a set-piece and scrum dominance is staggering.
When you enjoy such a vastly superior set piece, it’s very rare for a side not to convert that into victory. Which underlines how bizarre the result was. At one stage, virtually every scrum was an England penalty. Robshaw carried that sense of psychological dominance into that penalty decision. His gut instinct at that moment must have been kick it into the corner, drive them over, win the game, because at no stage did the English players honestly believe they were going to lose the game.
I kept thinking...what would Paulie do? In real time, it was the emotive call, not the rational call. A draw keeps everything going in terms of momentum for Lancaster. Wales limp into the Fiji game on Thursday, and the England coach carries a united nation into next Saturday’s clash against the Wallabies. Robshaw will reflect on being in charge of a group incapable of delivering the knockout punch. Is that lack of leadership or bad luck? Next Saturday will tell a lot. It’s England’s Waterloo.
DAMNED WITH FAINT PRAISE
Is Ireland’s World Cup glass three-quarters full or quarter empty? I’m as loathe as anyone to pick holes in our start to the tournament. In fact, you can’t. The issue is what’s coming down the tracks. If we don’t get a proper scrap next Sunday at Olympic Park from Italy, then it’s a real disadvantage going into the France game on October 11th. Ireland will almost have forgotten what a real test match is like.
Would I prefer to be in Wales’ position? Battered and bruised? No, but it would be helpful and insightful if Joe Schmidt’s side were smashed out of their comfort zone before they meet the French. At Wembley, Ireland underlined how disciplined and well-oiled a machine they’ve become, and why they are so hard to beat. I was in the team hotel Sunday and you’re quickly struck by the calmness of the whole operation, that unmistakable feelgood aura. Before the game, I was watching the lads not involved in the matchday squad, because their body language provides the crucial little indicators we have spoken about here in the past. And there was a nice sense there of lads being excited, throwing the ball around, playing mini games and competitions among themselves. That’s a sign fellas just want to play ball. It wasn’t there in 2007...
There’s a bit of talk now around this World Cup about Ireland, about what a machine Schmidt has built. It’s dangerous talk, and given its source, I’m not sure it’s altogether genuine. Folk will talk us up, and it’s a plateau Irish teams are never comfortable with. I’ll believe the platitudes are genuine when we’re preparing for a World Cup semi....
THERE’S NO CERTAINTIES BUT...
How does Joe Schmidt set up his side for Italy? Mix ‘n match or full strength in the expectation that a good test match will gird players for France on Sunday week?
There are no certainties but all things being normal, Mike Ross and Rory Best will play against France, so too will Healy and McGrath. Devin Toner did very well against Romania and both himself and Iain Henderson will see game-time alongside Paulie on October 11th. O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip is the back row if they’re fit, and Sexton and Murray are the half-backs.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt sums up with his side did well against Romania.
Jared Payne or Luke Fitzgerald will play at 13 v France but Robbie Henshaw has to play against Italy Sunday to put himself in the frame the following week. The back three for Italy will be dictated by Rob Kearney’s availability. The wing options are looking good too - Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney with Zebo in for Rob Kearney if he’s in trouble. People now assume Tommy Bowe is a lock for France after two tries. I wouldn’t take that to the bank yet. The only cert is Keith Earls, he’s the sharpest Irish back at the minute.
IT MIGHT BE A WALLABY WORLD
Comparisons are odious, but watching Australia’s demolition of Uruguay and comparing it to the events at Wembley were interesting. We have to work hard for our tries, because we don’t possess the individual flair of the Wallabies. Ireland relies on a systematic approach whereas the Aussies have extremely talented rugby players. Do they have the collective merit of Schmidt’s squad?
I’m not sure. Israel Folau is one of the best talents at this World Cup, and the mercurial abilities of Quade Cooper were manifestly evident Sunday. I know, 65-3 landslides don’t win World Cups, but some of the Wallaby tries were a joy to watch. You have got to admire their skill level. It wasn’t a case of just running over Uruguay, there was a bit of everything in there. Even Michael Cheika was getting very animated in the stands. Make no mistake, Australia can win this World Cup. England’s defence is facing the sternest examination next Saturday night.
A WORD FOR WALES
If Japan’s defeat of South Africa was the most uplifting performance of the World Cup, Wales’ afore mentioned victory at Twickenham was the gutsiest. Incredible resilience and astounding on an away ground - the home ground of the World Cup hosts at that. I sign-posted Dan Biggar’s ability to step up in the absence of Leigh Halfpenny, but he did more than that. His mental toughness was in stark contrast to those he faced at Twickenham.
That might just have been Warren Gatland’s World Cup high, however. Obviously they are going to feel really confident about themselves, but that only lasts until the next ball is kicked off. Then it’s a new test match. The hard-hitting Fiji this Thursday. Everything else then is in the past. Sport has proven many times how hard it is, physically and emotionally, to go to the well twice.
A BRILLIANT BOK
Jean de Villiers was carried out on his shield Saturday. The way he’d want to finish as a Springbok. He has given everything to South Africa, and gave his all to come back from injury for this World Cup. 109 caps.
And the last one exactly how a great warrior should finish. At the World Cup. Broken jaw. Couldn’t give any more. A 100% performer. We all had such a fantastic season with him when he came to Munster. He’s been a top professional. And I’ve massive admiration for him.