Joe Schmidt will have flown out of Chicago on Sunday satisfied that Ireland have potentially remedied a worrying black mark.
Referee Nigel Owens only penalised them three times at Soldier Field, a meagre level of illegality in their rout of Italy.
It signals a positive November series return to normal service by a squad with a usually squeaky clean reputation.
Amid the hoopla of clinching Grand Slam success in England last March and then heading to Australia to win a three-Test series in June, it went largely unnoticed how Ireland lurched from saints to sinners in the process.
Playing outside Lansdowne Road’s home comforts, their run of matches in London, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney saw the number of penalties conceded uncharacteristically jump into double digits on all four occasions (12, 12, 11, 12).
Considering Ireland’s indiscipline only ever numbered 10 penalties or more in 14 of Schmidt’s 54 previous games, it was quite a naughty development. Especially for a team that prides itself on staying the right side of the law.
They also collected four yellow cards on their travels (Jacob Stockdale, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and Peter O’Mahony), a sin-binning on average every 80 minutes. That was drastic given the saintliness of what went before, just 10 yellows (and a solitary red) in 54 matches. A sin bin every 432 minutes.
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Rassie Erasmus sarcastically teaching best practice in tackling.
With identifying Irish shenanigans usually akin to searching for a needle in a haystack, being well behaved is usually a stand-out characteristic in the five-year, 59-game Schmidt era.
The concession of just eight penalties per game is their stated target and following their latest American trip, just 482 penalties have been conceded (an average of 8.1 per match) since November 2013. Forty-three of the head-to-head penalty counts have also been won against their opposition.
It’s an enviable level of discipline, something Ireland will now look to consolidate in coming Saturdays.
They have Aussie Nic Berry, an official they have never encountered before, in charge versus Argentina followed by the appointment of Wayne Barnes, the more familiar English referee, for the series highlight against New Zealand.
Barnes has penalised Ireland 44 times in his five previous appearances and shown two yellow cards, so the likelihood is Schmidt’s charges will come under greater scrutiny in a month where Saturday’s more hotly-contested November openers saw England cough up 11 penalties and a yellow against South Africa and Wales sign off with 13 penalties and a yellow in their scrappy win over 12-penalty Scotland.
It was this time two years ago when Ireland’s saintly approach best stood out. They conceded a minuscule 11 penalties in 240 minutes in outings against New Zealand (twice) and Australia, on average the leaking of a single penalty nearly every 22 minutes. They were also card free.
In sharp contrast, the All Blacks and the Wallabies were penalised 39 times in those games, a penalty every six minutes, and they also suffered five yellow cards.
Good habits are the way of the Schmidt world. Their record lowest penalty count was two conceded against Italy in the 2014 Six Nations. There was just three in games versus Australia and Italy (twice after Saturday), four against New Zealand (twice) and Wales (also twice) and tallies of five against New Zealand, Australia and England. Impressive.
Throughout Schmidt’s long reign there has only been one period where standards dropped off alarmingly and cost results. Between August 2015 and February 2016 they were beaten on the penalty count in seven of a dozen matches.
Their penalty count was also in double digits on eight of those occasions and there were three yellow cards, bad habits which contributed to a dissatisfactory World Cup elimination and the premature surrender of a Six Nations title they were seeking to win for an historic third time in succession.
It was a downturn in fortunes they never want to repeat. Ever since, giving referees as little reason as possible to blow their whistle has been at the heart in helping to make Schmidt’s Ireland the force they now are.
‘That emphasis has always been there,’ explained the coach about the zero-tolerance approach. ‘We have only had that one red card and everybody who knows CJ Stander well enough knows he is an incredibly disciplined player.
‘It’s something that we try to drive as a group, that we are disciplined, and that is what you want. We try to scrum square, we try to play as close to the edge as possible because you can’t just wait for the opposition to do everything.
‘You have got to play on the edge and the more you know where the edge is the more disciplined you can be. I’m proud of the way the players apply themselves and are very conscious of what the legalities are and try to play within them.
‘Sometimes you don’t quite get the very small number (of penalties conceded) you are looking for. The lowest we have had is two penalties against us in a game and we have had some double figures that we are not happy with.’
Painting the right picture for the officials at the breakdown is an imperative. ‘With the clear-out, we don’t want guys being untidy,’ continued Schmidt, who often has Test referee John Lacey visit Carton House to run the training ground rule over latest officiating trends.
‘If someone puts in something s****y at training, one of the easy things is that it is a yellow card that will cost us in the game. Therefore, they have got to do a lap around the pitch and when they get back they will be tired.
‘We want behaviours that are going to be accurate. It’s about discipline and making sure you don’t disadvantage your team… we have got to make sure that our discipline is good, that we don’t transgress.’
What good behaviour does for Ireland is help level the playing field. They are never going to consistently match the more offloading sides in the skills department, but being disciplined goes a long way towards bridging the gap.
Ireland’s forensic emphasis on behaviour strikingly differs from how New Zealand go about business. In their 39 matches since lifting the 2015 World Cup the All Blacks, whose concession tally was seven in Japan, have conceded a total of 371 penalties (a per-game average of 9.5), have only won the penalty count on 14 occasions (35.8 percent), and have picked up 18 yellow cards (and a red), a sin-binning every 173 minutes.
Ireland’s numbers in their 32 matches since those finals are 251 penalties conceded (7.8 per game), 23 penalty counts won (71.8 percent) and nine yellows (and one red), a sin bin every 284 minutes.
It was better discipline that gave Ireland the edge against the All Blacks in Chicago and the hope is it can help do so again in Dublin on November 17.
In 2016, with New Zealand coughing up seven offences and a yellow card in the opening 22 minutes, Ireland pushed the score to 18-8 and this early 10-point difference was what ultimately still separated the sides come the grandstand finish.
With Ireland’s B selection in Chicago having now broken the recent untidy sequence of high, double-digit penalty counts, the onus is now on Schmidt’s returning established stars to be as disciplined over the next two weekends.
THE REFS VERSUS IRELAND
Seventeen different referees have taken charge of Ireland during Joe Schmidt’s 59-game reign. Here’s the breakdown of how the 482 penalties and 15 cards (14 yellows/one red) have been distributed…
Tests Pens Cards
G Jackson (NZ) 7 – 57 – 3Y
J Garces (Fra) 7 – 53 – 1Y
N Owens (Wal) 6 – 38 – 0
P Gauzere (Fra) 5 – 44 – 3Y
W Barnes (Eng) 5 – 44 – 2Y
C Joubert (SA) 5 – 45 – 0
M Raynal (Fra) 4 – 28 – 1R/2Y
R Poite (Fra) 4 – 30 – 0
A Gardner (Aus) 3 – 29 – 1Y
P Williams (NZ) 2 – 19 – 2Y
M van der Westhuizen (SA) 2 – 20 – 0
JP Doyle (Eng) 2 – 18 – 0
S Walsh (Aus) 2 – 18- 0
J Peyper (SA) 2 – 17 – 0
B O’Keeffe (NZ) 1 – 8 – 0
L Pearse (Eng) 1 – 7 – 0
C Pollock (NZ) 1 – 7 – 0
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