When Joe Schmidt eventually finds the time to reflect on his spectacular period at the helm of Irish rugby, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff will not feature prominently on his highlights reel.
The pain of that stinging World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina four years ago shaped everything he has done to this point. If developing strength in depth within his squad was a major driving force since, then arriving at the point where Kieran Marmion became the 36th player to experience game time in this seasons Six Nations should have been a positive.
Unfortunately, there were no such comforts to take from Saturday’s capitulation at the hands of Wales in a performance and result that was every bit as painful as that World Cup exit in 2015. At least, in the cold light of day, the fact that Ireland were shorn five key figures against Argentina in Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell and Jared Payne due to injury, along with the suspended Sean O Brian, offered a explanation, if not an excuse.
Schmidt can derive no such crumb of comfort from this damaging result which not only negates anything salvaged from the French win seven days earlier but only served to highlight even more graphically the shortcomings and vulnerabilities exposed by England on that opening day tournament defeat in Dublin last month.
The general consensus around Cardiff in advance of kickoff, even amongst the most partisan of Welsh media, was that this game was just too tight to call even if playing in the most atmospheric rugby stadium in the game offers Wales a big advantage.
Ireland’s Call was completely drowned by the sheer volume, passion and fervour generated by ‘Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’— Land of my Fathers to you and me. Inspirational Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones bellowed out every word with a call to arms that summoned every man, woman and child lucky enough to have secured a ticket to get behind his men from the off.
They didn’t disappoint.
What transpired was a horror show for Schmidt and Ireland. Not only did Wales usurp us as reigning Grand Slam champions but also displaced us as the second-ranked side in the game at present. In terms of preparedness for the World Cup, this result leaves Schmidt with a mountain of work and soul searching to do between now and the end of the season.
Ireland’s call of a different kind in deciding to insist that the roof remain open, despite the forecast for severe winds and heavy rain, backfired badly with Wales adapting to the conditions so much better, especially in terms of their handling and kicking game, than we did. That proved a flawed decision.
What transpired over the course of the 83 painful minutes was a horror show from an Irish perspective. Former Welsh captain Sam Warburton made the point in advance of kick off that, despite the nation’s historic fascination with beating England, it’s the Irish that this group of Welsh players want to beat most.
Right from the kick-off, Gareth Anscombe’s inch-perfect delivery with astonishing hang time landed on Jacob Stockdale who was immediately devoured by the chasing George North and forced into touch offering Wales an attacking lineout right on the Irish twenty two metre line. From that point onwards, everything Warren Gatland set out to do in camp during the week came to fruition.
Any suggestion that the pressure of chasing yet another Grand Slam might prove inhibiting was quickly put to bed with a fantastic Welsh try within 70 seconds from Hadleigh Parkes. When the Welsh crowd are bellowing ‘Hymns and Arias’ after only four minutes of action, you know you’re in trouble.
Schmidt was peeved that, despite the decision to close the roof two years ago, Wales watered the pitch anyway and decided that the inclement conditions would work in Ireland’s favour given a perceived superiority at the set piece. Unfortunately, that never transpired.
Even more worrying was the way Ireland were completely blown away at the breakdown and in the contact area, summed up best by a turnover count of 20-8 in favour of Wales. Ireland were acutely aware Wales seek to create a contest for possession around every tackle when chasing a turnover and they succeeded in doing just that.
They were also far more physical and clinical with their clean out and regularly drove beyond the ball, generating an armchair ride for scrum-half Gareth Davies. It’s a long time since this Irish back row was so comprehensively outplayed on the deck and prevented from making any meaningful yardage in the carrying stakes.
Sadly Sean O’Brien is a pale shadow of the player that gave a masterclass on all facets of back row play for the Lions against New Zealand two years ago. Time is now against him in convincing Schmidt that he should be part of his plans for the World Cup.
In addition to their marked superiority at the breakdown, Wales were even better when it came to defending. Shaun Edwards won his personal battle with Andy Farrell in terms of how influential their respective structures were in dictating the outcome of this contest.
How ironic that Edwards used the choke tackle, developed by Les Kiss a decade ago when playing such a key role in delivering a Grand Slam under Declan Kidney, to inflict such pain on us en-route to a third Slam on Gatland’s watch. Wales have only conceded seven tries in this championship and the all-enveloping nature of their suffocating defence denied Ireland any space to operate in.
Ireland’s decorated half backs suffered as a consequence but Schmidt must now be seriously worried about the form of two of his chief lieutenants in Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. Even the basics of the game deserted Sexton on this occasion with his restarts, in comparison to Anscombe, all over the place. He kicked dead, he kicked out on the full and he allowed the Welsh to get to him. That was a mistake.
The injury that led to George North having to go off after only eight minutes and resulted in the introduction of Dan Biggar at out-half with Anscombe relocating to full back and Williams to the right wing worked in favour of the Welsh with Biggar’s superior kicking game more suited to the wet conditions.
To add to Ireland’s woes, they completely lost the plot in terms of discipline, conceding eight penalties in the first half alone. In this, let’s have no complaints with Australian referee Angus Gardner as their problems were totally self-inflicted. For a side that normally concedes an average of five penalties a game, that first half return was a direct consequence of the sustained pressure the Welsh managed to apply throughout the period.
If there is any consolation to be gleaned from what transpired to be a thoroughly underwhelming championship, it is the fact that Ireland has time to take stock and reassess six months out from the World Cup. Schmidt and his management team have a lot to address and some hard decisions to ponder in the weeks and months ahead.