How did Wales and England expose Ireland’s limitations?

If Carlsberg could do Grand Slam-winning opening salvos, they would replicate what Wales delivered in the opening 70 seconds of action in Cardiff last Saturday.

How did Wales and England expose Ireland’s limitations?

If Carlsberg could do Grand Slam-winning opening salvos, they would replicate what Wales delivered in the opening 70 seconds of action in Cardiff last Saturday. If they could do championship draws, then the 38-38 extravaganza in Twickenham, after the Scots had trailed their English hosts 31-0, is about as outrageous as you could hope to witness. It’s been that kind of Six Nations championship.

All the sides, bar Italy, enjoyed some notable moments, but Wales were the only side that consistently delivered when the need was greatest. For that reason alone, they were fully deserving of their success.

It appears that the blueprint for winning a Grand Slam is to play France in your opening game, at the Stade de France. Place yourself on the precipice of defeat, as Ireland did last year before Johnny Sexton landed a career-defining drop goal to snatch a last-gasp victory. The adrenaline rush that follows a result like that sustains you for the entire tournament.

Alternatively, allowing yourself to fall 16-0 in arrears at half-time, as Wales did, before engineering a character-defining comeback against all the odds, generates the exact same reaction. The clairvoyant in Warren Gatland declared in advance of the opening weekend of action that, if Wales emerged from Paris with a win, then they would go on to secure a Grand Slam. How right he was.

It’s been a gruelling seven-week period for Joe Schmidt and Ireland, with that defeat to England creating a greater dent in Irish confidence than we appreciated at the time. There is a lot of truth in what New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said about being able to deal with the pressure of being top of the pile. The All Blacks have had to do it for years and, more often than not, make light of the load. In contrast, Ireland struggled badly.

What is abundantly clear is that our main European rivals, England and Wales, picked Ireland’s game apart in advance of the tournament and forensically examined the areas where we enjoyed a marked superiority with a view to either emulating or negating them.

Our two key points of difference throughout a magnificent 2018 were identified as our kicking game with its aerial superiority, running parallel with an ability to retain possession through endless phases that stressed the opposition to the point of conceding penalties or points.

So how did England and Wales go about diluting those advantages? England arrived in Dublin with their back three primed for an aerial bombardment and prepared accordingly. Jonny May, not noted for his solidity under the high ball, was like a man transformed and worked superbly in tandem with Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly.

Part of that process was clever use of lazy blockers in the form of retreating England players, cleverly impeding the running lines of the chasing Irish wingers. That bought crucial time for the back-field cover. It didn’t help either that Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton’s kicking game lacked its normal pinpoint accuracy.

Wales have always been excellent in the air, with Dan Biggar and Liam Williams especially effective. Ireland’s kicking radar was even further askew by the time we arrived in Cardiff and never threatened the Welsh back three, despite the fact that it had to be reconfigured after George North was forced off after only eight minutes.

As for Ireland’s continuity game, England set out to blunt that at source by building an impregnable defensive wall, with a punishing line speed tasked with stopping Ireland’s big ball carriers at or behind the gain line and were hugely effective in doing so.

The Welsh defensive system is even more cohesive and advanced than England’s, so they relished the prospect of closing the space available to Ireland. The fact that last Saturday’s game was played in a continuous downpour, after Ireland insisted on the roof being left open, played into their defensive mindset even further as the prospect of Ireland being able to string a series of passes around that suffocating banana-shaped defence was made even more difficult.

Working in tandem with that suffocating line speed, England and Wales were also superb in contesting for turnovers and in slowing down Ireland’s recycle. That imposed even more pressure on Murray and Sexton and the more they tried, the worse things got. When your main talismans are struggling, that tends to ripple through the team.

It was no surprise that Schmidt singled out Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi for special mention after the game, as both were pivotal in contesting every tackle situation and slowing down the delivery of the ball.

Surely Ireland knew what to expect from them in advance? Ireland’s back row have rarely been as outplayed as they were against Navidi, Tipuric, and Ross Moriarty and remember, they still have the injured

Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate to come back into their squad for the World Cup.

To compound things even more, Ireland’s set piece also struggled on Saturday while our discipline, another key tenet of Ireland’s game, fell apart, conceding eight penalties in the opening half alone. On a day when tries were always going to be hard to come by, that allowed Gareth Anscombe build a score with an immaculate return of 20 points from the boot in very difficult conditions.

The contrast with our final Six Nations game last season could not be more stark. Last year in Twickenham, with a Grand Slam on the line, Ireland led by 16 points at the break. It was game over. This time out Rory Best’s men were 16-0 in arrears with no prospect of a way back. This side has a really poor record when forced to chase a game and that needs to be addressed. Where has the mental fortitude that fashioned that 41-phase drop goal in the dying embers of that French game in Paris disappeared to?

Saturday’s defeat marked a sad end to what has been an incredible Six Nations journey for Schmidt. In six seasons, he has delivered three Six Nations championships, including a rare Grand Slam, and enjoyed a 70% win ratio from 30 championship games at the helm — an all-time high for an Ireland coach.

Gatland finished his 12-year Six Nations journey with Wales with a Grand Slam, just as he did in his first tournament with them back in 2008. At a time when Welsh regional rugby is in disarray, and his players have genuine concerns about their future employment, he fashioned a magnificent campaign. That mini-camp he conducted in Nice between their opening two games pulled the whole squad together and they are in a really healthy position now heading into the World Cup. Contrast that with the position Schmidt and his coaching ticket find themselves in. As the players disperse, hopefully to rediscover their best form with their respective provinces over the next two months, the management need to conduct a root-and-branch review of the championship.

How they respond and present to the players when they reassemble at the end of the season will be crucial to regaining the ground lost in recent weeks. All of the tactical deficiencies are fixable. The players have proved in the past that they are good enough to deliver against all opposition, but the mental baggage that has accumulated needs to be addressed.

Despite the setbacks, I believe that things can be turned around. After all, it’s far better to have our limitations and vulnerabilities exposed now rather than at the World Cup itself. Schmidt is a world-class coach. I await with interest to see the response from him and his wider coaching team as they absorb the harsh lessons of 2019 to date.

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