By Donal Linehan
IF a week is a long time in politics then it can be a lifetime in professional sport.
Sunday’s Six Nations clash between Ireland and Wales is not only pivotal to both sides continuing their challenge for the championship - it will also shape their agendas for the remaining two games.
The departure of Welsh Grand Slam winning coach Mike Ruddock and the circumstances surrounding his exit have created shock waves in the valleys over the last week. In a country where the mood of the people can be gauged by the performance of the national rugby team, serious questions are being asked of the role of the players and the Welsh Rugby Union in Ruddock’s demise.
All of this has heaped pressure of an unwanted kind on Wales captain Gareth Thomas and his players. If his current state of mind can be gauged from his appearance on BBC’s "Scrum V" programme on Sunday then it is clear he is feeling the heat.
I watched the programme live and couldn’t believe my eyes. Thomas was clearly agitated even before the discussion began and when questioned by Eddie Butler and Jonathan Davies, he lost all composure. It was no surprise therefore to hear he was subsequently hospitalised, suffering from severe migraine. Hardly the ideal preparation for a demanding rugby international.
While Ruddock initially claimed family reasons for his departure, there were other issues at play. It is now clear the players were unhappy about certain aspects in relation to the preparation of the team. Thomas revealed that in the build-up to the Scotland game a key issue surrounding player insurance, specifically related to Gareth Cooper’s shoulder injury against England, was on the verge of forcing a player withdrawal from that game.
Further issues arose during the week when the players refused to attend a press conference due to the presence of Graham Thomas, the ghost writer of Gavin Henson’s infamous book.
During the course of the BBC programme, Gareth Thomas also gave credence to the view that many of the Welsh players were resentful of the amount of credit afforded to Ruddock for his role in last season’s success.
To me this seems incredibly petty. Welsh rugby had been in turmoil for some time and the achievement of winning their first Grand Slam in 27 years should have been the focal point of enormous pride. Instead acrimony and division reign.
When the Cork hurling squad went on strike a few years ago it is reasonable to suggest they enjoyed the support of the majority of the hurling public in the county. That said, they were under tremendous pressure to perform and in many peoples eyes only winning the All-Ireland itself could justify their actions. Not only did they manage that but are now seeking a third title in-a-row.
By way of comparison, a poll conducted last week showed that over 80% of the Welsh public wanted Ruddock to remain in the job. While it is clear the players attribute much of their recent success to skills coach Scott Johnson, who has assumed Ruddock’s role for the remainder of the championship, there is now enormous pressure on them to perform this weekend.
This will either galvanise the squad in terms of their overall performance or conversely could detract attention to such a degree that they are ill-prepared for a game of this magnitude.
Meanwhile, Ireland prepare for this game against a background of two disappointing displays in the championship. While Italy’s excellent performance against England last time out goes someway towards explaining Ireland’s difficulty in conquering the Azzuri in Dublin, the first half performance against France has raised further questions over Ireland’s current well-being.
If the lessons of the opening two games have been absorbed then there is no doubt Ireland can win this game. The key to victory is to attack the Welsh where they are weakest. The loss of Brent Cockbain and Ryan Jones has reduced the effectiveness of their line-out considerably. Ireland must attack this phase from the off, particularly on the Welsh throw, despite the undoubted loss of Paul O’Connell, Ireland still have sufficient quality in this department.
All season, Ireland have under-utilised their maul, which has been central to their successes in recent times. Given the Welsh propensity to commit few forwards to the breakdown, the Ireland pack would also prosper by developing their pick and go game.
Ireland’s ability to play out of the tackle has improved considerable this season but it is important to recognise that if the 50/50 pass isn’t on then compromise and retain possession. On too many occasions this season, in an effort to achieve the off load, Ireland has lost possession. Wales in particular are devastating in punishing turnover ball and will counter attack, even from deep.
The question mark over this Ireland team is whether the first or second half performance in Paris is a true measure of their current form. One can’t but escape the feeling that some day soon, the new high tempo game the team is attempting to play will come together and the quality within the side will finally manifest itself for 80 minutes.
Since Paris, questions have also been raised over Eddie O Sullivan’s ability to extract the best from the squad. To my mind, O Sullivan is the best man to prepare Ireland for the World Cup in France. However too much of his energy has been directed towards justifying policies and answering his perceived critics.
This Ireland set-up has a golden opportunity over the next two weeks to set the record straight with their performances on the field. Ultimately that is the only place that matters. In the high pressure stakes of international sport, both Wales and Ireland share a common cause this week.
At least one of them may feel vindicated at the end.