The elephant in the room is an overused phrase, but never was it more appropriate than in the immediate aftermath of this afternoon’s game at Lansdowne Road. First Declan Kidney and then Paul O’Connell fetched up for the immediate post match television interview, and both got from A-Z without being asked about the incident that, on the face of it, cost Ireland the game: the Stephen Ferris tackle on Ian Evans.
Let’s get this out of the way first: it wasn’t a penalty, never mind a yellow card. Ferris picked and drove his man back, rather than down. The key here is if the tackler lifts the player and either drives him into the dirt, or else dumps him without any attention to how he comes down. Ferris didn’t do either.
Bradley Davies on the other hand did exactly that. He picked up Donnacha Ryan – who did very well when he came on for Donncha O’Callaghan – flipped him over and then dropped him. Unlike the Ferris incident, it was dangerous. The mystery was how touch judge Dave Pearson didn’t recommend red to referee Wayne Barnes.
At the post-match press conference Warren Gatland was asked if he thought Davies was lucky to escape red. Normally coaches equivocate when put on the spot like this. Gatland dealt with it head-on. “Yes,” he said. Simple as that.
It was every bit as dangerous as the tackle that cut short Sam Warburton’s World Cup. Welsh fans will see it as apposite that the final act swung on an incident like this.
This will dominate the rugby media over the coming days, and it would be useful to have IRB refs manager Paddy O’Brien on hand rather than in Invercargill. Whatever, we have seen glaring inconsistency in how a health and safety issue – one that is supposed to be top of refs’ agendas – is being applied.
The debate is worth having but it shouldn’t be carried out in the context of how it cost Ireland the game. Ireland cost Ireland the game. Having played with 35% territory in the first half, they recovered to get into a winning position only to blow it in the last 10 minnutes.
Two things will linger. First there is the amount of space afforded the Welsh attack when it is already clear that they are very comfortable with ball in hand. Paul O’Connell accepted afterwards that conceding ground so easily hadn’t been a great idea. It should make for an interesting defensive debrief on Tuesday.
I remember during the World Cup game in Wellington, from our vantage point high in the stands, being impressed with the structure of the red shirts in phase play, how quickly they got shape on their attack, how they maintained depth and had good options depending on how Ireland were defending. It was exactly the same yesterday. So why give them so much room?
The second is how Ireland attacked. Unlike Wales, it only took a few phases for Ireland’s shape to suffer, at which point you felt that the ball could go anywhere, or to anyone, whether they wanted it or not. They were hugely reliant on the outstanding ball carrying of Jamie Heaslip for territory. And if he wasn’t breaking tackles then Ireland weren’t going forward. Given that making real improvement in attack was top of Declan Kidney’s to-do list, this was not good for business. In the absence of that shift in quality, Paris on Saturday could get ugly.