Wales coach Warren Gatland brings great qualities to any management set-up and once again, in the face of adversity, he has engineered two really competitive Six Nations’ performances from a squad ravaged by injury, writes Donal Lenihan
Two rounds into Six Nations action and the only thing separating pre-tournament favourites Ireland and England at the top of the table is a single conversion.
While both sides have already experienced the point-scoring try-fest that, unfortunately for the tournament, now seems to be a given in games against Italy, Ireland remain in a stronger position having already negotiated what is always a challenging trip to Paris, notwithstanding the idiosyncrasies associated with the French national team.
In addition, despite hosting the Azzurri last weekend, Ireland have another two home games on the bounce while England face successive road trips to Murrayfield and the Stade de France. Now well into his fifth Six Nations campaign at the helm, Joe Schmidt has never presided over a tournament defeat in his 11 championship games played at the Aviva Stadium.
In truth, Ireland’s sequence of fixtures this season could not have panned out any better.
The squad has two weeks to catch breath now before a difficult encounter against an impressive Welsh outfit and then a March 10 clash against the flawed and, at times, flamboyant Scots. The opening loss to them in Edinburgh last season will suppress any semblance of over-confidence in relation to that clash.
If the championship does eventually come down to that March 17 outing against the English at Twickenham, then the fact Eddie Jones’ men will be coming off the back of what is sure to be a bruising encounter against the French offers Ireland another potential edge.
However, with the injuries mounting for all squads as the tournament progresses, much will depend on who is in the best physical shape come the final round.
Ever since that crushing defeat to Argentina at the last World Cup, Schmidt has been building the depth in his squad to cater for the position he currently finds himself in, dealing with the loss of key individuals.
Right now it looks like nailed on starters such as Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw, and possibly Tadhg Furlong, along with key matchday squad players Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose, could all be out of the equation for the Welsh visit.
What was proved conclusively on Saturday is the extreme difficulty at international level of slotting into a pivotal role like out-half, as Joey Carbery was tasked with doing, with only 20 minutes of competitive action in the No. 10 jersey all season. We have become so accustomed to the assured authority Johnny Sexton brings to the position that we take it as the norm.
Far from it. Anyone who watched Finn Russell struggle to deliver even the most basic requirements of the role — such as finding touch from a penalty or rewarding forwards for their efforts in turning over hard-won possession — would appreciate why, in addition to the service Sexton lays on for the Irish midfield and back three, the Irish forwards love it when he continually puts them on the front foot.
After Sexton and Murray were withdrawn on 50 minutes Saturday, Ireland lost their attacking shape and invited Italy into the game on the back of a series of badly executed kicks. Some might say Carbery and Kieran
Marmion were on a hiding to nothing when asked to replace the Lions half-back pairing with the side already 35-0 ahead. I disagree. Italy were ripe for picking but Ireland failed to push on and invited the visitors back into the contest.
Quite where that leaves us remains to be seen but what we can say with certainty is that the well organised defensive structure that Wales and England, and to a lesser extent Scotland, will bring to bear will be at a far higher level to the Italians.
If my admiration for the Welsh has grown after the opening two games of the tournament, my suspicions regarding the genuine quality of this England side have intensified even further.
I have always been a great admirer of the qualities Warren Gatland brings to any management set-up and once again, in the face of adversity, he has engineered two really competitive performances from a Welsh squad ravaged by injury.
Last weekend they were robbed of yet another British and Irish Lion in Leigh Halfpenny in the hours before kick-off, which extended the list of absent tourists to nine, but they still refused to be bullied by an England side unbeaten at Twickenham since the 2015 World Cup. But for an appalling call from the TMO, which denied Wales a certain try, they may well have caused England even greater problems.
Yet, despite failing to score a single point over the final 62 minutes of action, England prevailed. They did threaten to over-run Wales at times but, tellingly, lacked the composure and artistry to deliver a try, despite monopolising possession in that final hour of action. In fact, it was the Welsh who looked more threatening.
When you consider that Gatland was forced to start this match without a Lions Test back three of Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, and George North, a Lions half-back pairing in Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar and 2017 Lions player of the series Jonathan Davies in the centre, their performance was full of resilience and character. They will be no different in Dublin.
Add in for good measure the absent Lions back row of captain Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, and Dan Lydiate and one appreciates why Gatland will be expressing no sympathy for Ireland on the loss of Henshaw, O’Brien and potentially Furlong on his return to Dublin.
Having studied both Leicester Tigers and Aviva Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs up close in their respective Champions Cup encounters against Munster and Leinster last December, I was convinced at the time that the Irish squad players who went head-to-head with their English counterparts over the course of those four contests were better, individually and collectively. Whether that proves to be the case on March 17 in London remains to be seen. The Irish players enjoyed a few days off before reassembling in Athlone yesterday where the issues in that second half against Italy will be reviewed and put to bed before focusing on the specific challenges Wales, in particular their new attacking shape, will bring to bear on February 24.
Schmidt will be concerned that, despite the loss of their experienced campaigners, Wales are still brimming with confidence and, with so many in-form Scarlets now on board, have quickly adapted to the more free-flowing, off-loading game that the reigning Guinness PRO14 champions favour.
By already offering meaningful Six Nations exposure to recent U20 graduates Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, and Andrew Porter (who did an excellent job when called on prematurely for Furlong against Italy), and an international debut to Jordan Larmour, Schmidt is managing the difficult process of integrating some really exciting new talent, in the heat of tournament action, to complement the hard-core, experienced element in the squad.
That augurs well for the future — even if that extends no further than Saturday week.
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