As if being top of the planetary pile isn’t enough, Ireland can now claim to be global leaders in the hazardous art of keeping all 15 players on the field.
Right now, nobody does it better.
Over the course of a year like no other, the most consistent of all Irish squads raised their collective discipline beyond the reach of the rest. Measured by the ultimate criterion of red and yellow cards, Ireland stand out, second to none.
They negotiated 11 Tests spread over the Six Nations, a three-match series in New Zealand and a challenging autumn without falling seriously foul of any referee. Throughout a schedule of almost unremitting intensity over an aggregate period of some 17 hours, they stayed at full strength for all but 20 minutes.
Only twice did a referee have cause to reach for his pocket: Jaco Peyper fishing out of a yellow card in Dunedin to bin James Ryan, Wayne Barnes doing likewise to Andrew Porter in Wellington the following week. Neither sanction made any difference to Ireland’s demolition of the All Blacks.
Not even the reformed French, squeakier and cleaner than ever, could quite match the Irish example. Antoine Dupont’s sending-off against the Springboks in Marseille saw to that, the only card dealt to the Grand Slammers over ten matches during the year, one fewer than Ireland as well as a much lighter summer: two Tests in Japan against three in New Zealand .
Australia, usually up for a scrap in the grand old tradition of Going The Biff, went toe-to-toe in Dublin on Saturday night without going any opponent into blotting the copybook of good behavior.
There would have been times, thankfully long gone, when Irish teams of yesteryear would have succumbed to their own annoyance, and the Aussie larrikins, at falling a long way below par. How ironic, therefore, that their solitary try should be provided by the only man on Earth who knows what it’s like to be sent off twice for Ireland, Samoa at the last World Cup and England in Dublin some 20 months ago.
Bundee Aki started the autumn series serving an eight-week stretch for a third red, on Connacht’s behalf against the Stormers in September. Andy Farrell’s management team will have made him acutely aware that they don’t pick players to be sent off.
Their next home match, France in Dublin on February 11 in the second round of the Six Nations, already assumes a monumental significance: the first and second ranked teams slugging it out for the title and a great deal more.
If Ireland box as clever in the New Year as they did throughout the old one, they will, at the very least, expect to keep 15 players on the field from start to finish, come hell or high water.
Old school props have long looked down their broken noses at those of the breed who go and spoil what they stand for by scoring a try. Nobody exemplified the attitude quite like the grand old Welsh Lion, Ray Prosser.
The man responsible for turning his native Pontypool into the most feared, and successful, British club of the Seventies, manufactured a whole host of international props, most notably Graham Price. Wales rejoiced when the then student famously ran 70 meters for a late corner try on debut in Paris in 1975.
Prosser took a deliberately dim view of it. Reporting for club training the following Monday night, Price expected that his gnarled old mentor might be moved to give him a slap on the back.
Training over and still nothing said, the newly-capped tighthead headed for the exit. ”Oi, Pricey,” called Prosser. ”That French loosehead you played against on Saturday wasn’t up to much, was he?” ”What makes you think that, Pross?” ”Because if he’d been any f****** good, you’d have been too tired to run all the way for that try…”
The mind boggles at what Prosser and other old-school props the world over would have thought about a tighthead scoring twice in rapid succession, late tries so precious that they earned England a thrilling 25-25 draw with the All Blacks.
Will Stuart, who learned his trade off the beaten track at places like Blackheath, Moseley and Nottingham, came off the bench to do something no England prop had ever done. In a matter of seven minutes he scored more tries than another tighthead, Owen Franks, did in ten years and 108 Tests for the All Blacks.
Jason Leonard managed one in 14 years and 119 for England and the Lions. Stuart, therefore, is already shooting up the list, still a long way behind such deadly one-metre merchants as Cian Healy (8 for Ireland from 122 matches) and Kees Meeuws (10 for the All Blacks).
Despite Stuart’s thunderous double, Martin Castrogiovanni remains untouchable as the highest-scoring tighthead of all time. The colorful Italian’s 12 tries included a hat-trick, against Fiji almost 20 years ago.
Had he been playing for Pontypool, Prosser would have dropped him…
Wales have suffered from many afflictions over the years, among them a chronic habit of parting company with head coaches shortly before World Cups. The specter of history repeating itself offers cold comfort to Wayne Pivac, under heavy fire after Wales’ shocking home defeat by Georgia.
Ron Waldron resigned months before the 1991 tournament, Alan Davies likewise in 1995. Kevin Bowring lost his job barely a year out from the 1999 competition and a similar fate befell Graham Henry four years later, a 50-point beating in Dublin forcing his premature exit .
Wales, 12-3 ahead at half-time and in no real danger, imploded before substitute stand-off Luka Matkava’s long-distance penalty put them out of their misery. Irate fans called for Pivac’s removal.
Ex-Lions center Jamie Roberts called it ‘the worst performance I’ve seen from a Wales team. I didn’t see any fight. Wales were found wanting for desire. There needs to be serious questions asked about the coaching side.” The jubilant Georgians left demanding answers to serious questions of their own, all raising the same issue: ‘How much longer will they keep us out of the Six Nations?’ Their captain, Merab Sharikadze, used the historic occasion to make an impassioned plea. ”World Rugby needs to pay more attention to what we’re doing,” he told Amazon Prime. ”Something has to change. Until it does, we’ll go on proving people wrong.”
Any sport at the highest level demands an almost gladiatorial degree of bottle, nerve, courage, mental strength whatever you want to call it. When it really mattered on Saturday night, with the match in the balance, nobody showed more of the right stuff than Ross Byrne.
Suddenly the Dubliner found himself centre-stage at the end of a series which he began way down at fourth in the national out-half rankings, behind Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Jack Crowley. Minutes after Byrne’s bleated entry, Ireland won a penalty from an eminently missable position.
He could have opted for the corner and subsequent power play. Instead, without a moment’s hesitation, he pointed to the posts and that single act of faith got Ireland home, the goal nailed straight and true from a tricky angle.
Other fly halves in similarly tight spots reacted differently. Bernard Foley, faced with a more difficult shot moments after Byrne’s strike, went for the corner, spurning the draw for a win.
At Twickenham, a different ten, Marcus Smith, reacted differently after England had dragged themselves level from 13-25. Seconds remained when Richie Mo’unga’s restart found Smith who booted the ball out, happy to settle for the draw rather than chance his arm against 14 men.
Had the roles been reversed, the All Blacks would have gone for broke, disdaining the draw as a defeat. They are not the team they were but with attitude like that only a fool would write them off when it kicks off for real in Paris come September.
Joy Neville upset the locals in Toulouse yesterday by disallowing Jonathan Danty’s pyrotechnics in attempting to contradict Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation as written by the great physicist more than 300 years ago.
As TMO, Neville examined images of the airborne France center straddling the touchline while he reached down for a one-handed finish which almost defied belief. At first glance it looked as though Danty had done the impossible. Closer inspection revealed that he had touched the line before touchdown.
The French didn’t like it but Ireland’s trail-blazing referee got it right, as per usual.
15 Freddie Steward (England) 14 Darcy Graham (Scotland) 13 Reiko Ioane (New Zealand) 12 Jordie Barrett (New Zealand) 11Kurt-Lee Arendse (South Africa) 10 Ross Byrne (Ireland) 9 Vasil Lobzhanidze (Georgia) 1 Will Stuart ( England) 2 Julien Marchand (France) 3 Guram Papidze (Georgia) 4 Eben Etzebeth (South Africa) 5 Brodie Retallick (New Zealand) 6 Charles Ollivon (France) 7 Dalton Papli’i (New Zealand) 8 Rob Valetini (Australia).