Focus on Ireland's attack: ‘When you’re building towards something, you want functional’

Focus on Ireland's attack: ‘When you’re building towards something, you want functional’

The clock had long dipped into the red at the end of the first-half by the time Jonathan Sexton attempted one of those trademark wraparound moves only to be swallowed by a bear hug of a tackle and then held up by a posse of supporting Welshmen.

It was a slightly worrying end to the period, even if the time factor had limited Ireland’s options by forcing them to keep the ball in hand, because it supported the impression that Joe Schmidt’s side was still struggling to expand their attacking offering on the eve of the World Cup.

And what did they do? They doubled down. There was precious little invention in Ireland’s attacking play after the break when they dominated possession and territory. The two subsequent tries were products of pound-and- ground forward surges and a simplicity and stubbornness borne of one-out runners.

Warren Gatland said as much. Again.

The Welsh coach has never been slow in directing dubious compliments the way of his former team. He spoke of a Welsh side that had tried to “be positive in the way we play” through these warm-ups and an Irish team that, well, provided us with the rugby equivalent of a meat and two veg dish.

“Ireland did what they are traditionally good at,” said the man whose own style was once dubbed ‘Warrenball’. “I think about 85% of that second half was just off nine, off nine, off nine. Bundee Aki was effective in gainline stuff.”

Wales have earned a rich reward in the recent past by countering Ireland’s one-out runner with a lightning line speed and naked aggression but they lost the collision battles and the free-for-all that is the breakdown in Dublin. Gatland’s observation that they were effectively choked to death was apt.

You wonder what this will mean come the World Cup. Will Ireland revert to type? Do the selections of Jean Kleyn over Devin Toner and Rhys Ruddock over Jordi Murphy, or the sight of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw together in midfield and Garry Ringrose covering on the bench, point in one direction?

Ireland will not change overnight. Not now. The bludgeon will always be a stock source of supremacy for this team. There will be no grand unveiling of a new approach, like some risqué fashion line on a Paris catwalk, and yet it would be a sensation in itself if Schmidt and his cohorts don’t have something — or some things — held up their sleeve.

Plan B is not going to be the mirror image of Plan A. Ireland will not throw caution and offloads to the wind if their inch-by-inch approach fails them. More likely is a reliance on the sort of exquisitely planned set plays such as the one that relied on Tadhg Furlong as pivot for CJ stander’s try in Twickenham 18 months ago. Or the ploy that led to Jacob Stockdale’s score against New Zealand last November.

There was a hint of this stockpiling from Schmidt when he ruminated on Saturday’s win. He spoke, as he has so often this last month, about the skewed nature of these phoney wars pre-tournament, the varying levels of fitness among teams and how different players and different combinations have been trialled.

“It wasn’t flash,” he said of the 19-10 victory, “but it was functional and sometimes when you are building towards something, you want functional.”

Eddie O’Sullivan had a different take, pointing out on RTÉ Ireland dominated the second half and claimed the grand total of just 12 points.

It’s certainly difficult to see this team accomplish their goals with the narrow attacking strategy seen so far in 2019. It may work — and it is probably the most obvious approach against a Scotland team that would prefer a more fluid form of game in Yokohama — but a side now ranked No.1 in the world will surely have to show more.

“You hold a little bit back and you work on a few things,” said Gatland of these half-baked summer ‘Tests’. “These are warm-up games, not a Six Nations game where it matters about winning and you care about territory. Your kicking structures are more implemented.”

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