DONAL LENIHAN: Ireland v Wales: With all systems, you still need a spark

If the adage that you learn more in defeat holds true on this occasion then this reversal could well serve Ireland’s World Cup cause better in the long run.

Coming into this game the one fear I had — expecting Wales would reserve their best for us — was that if Ireland had to chase the game in the closing stages, did they have the ability to conjure up a match-winning try. We know the answer to that one now.

Wales had their homework done and Warren Gatland did a number on us once again. A few years ago Wales hated Ireland more than any other opposition whereas this time out they saw us as their brothers, kindred spirits from the Celtic nations. Come on Gatty, you can’t have it both ways.

All week Gatland and his coaching staff had been killing us with kindness. Behind the scenes, however, they were hatching a plot to kill Ireland’s momentum at every opportunity.

They even took the decision to announce that the roof would remain open for the first time under this management team in order to deny Joe Schmidt the call he was certain to make in any event.

In the modern game defence wins matches and Wales can point to a phenomenal shift in that department as the key element in this merited victory. To make 289 tackles, a tournament record beating the next best set by Italy at 245 against Ireland last season, coupled with a completion rate of 93% was incredible. By comparison Ireland only had to make 104 tackles.

Gatland decreed that Wales would take on Ireland’s well established areas of strength and nullify them. Unlike England who knew in advance that Ireland would saturate their back three with aerial bombs, Wales welcomed that challenge and fielded everything that came their way.

By the end of the opening quarter George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Bigger and Jamie Roberts had all plucked the ball from the skies denying the chasing Irish the chance to regain possession.

They used those aerial turnovers to ping Ireland back in their own half of the field for much of the opening period and Ireland found it impossible to break out due to the impregnable red defensive line that spanned the width of the field.

It helped the Welsh cause enormously that, for once, they hit the ground running, using their big ball carriers to retain possession through multi-phases and force Ireland into the concession of penalties. With a kicker of Halfpenny’s quality, the points kept piling up with Wales twelve points ahead after as many minutes.

By half-time Wales were winning all the key battles and even survived the sin-binning of their inspirational captain Sam Warburton at a net cost of only three points.

The biggest surprise was the pressure exerted on Ireland’s line-out. As I suspected, their first course of action was to deny Ireland opportunity by not kicking to touch. That approach worked to such an extent that Rory Best fed only three line outs in the opening 40 minutes and Wales pilfered two of them. Concerned about the strength of the Irish maul, they gambled by attacking Ireland in the air and that strategy worked with four key turnovers, one of massivepsychological value when Ireland reneged on a kick at goal in order to go for the corner.

To add insult to injury, Wales then gave Ireland a taste of their own medicine by launching several successful mauls of their own.

Up to this, Ireland have proved very hard to beat because they carry out their basic duties with an unerring accuracy.

They don’t make mistakes, or at the very least at a rate far less than their opponents. Not so on this occasion, however.

Wales suffocated the life out of Ireland and such was their defensive heroism, every bone-crunching tackle lifted the delirious Millennium Stadium crowd to such a degree the Irish players must have felt they were facing every man, woman and child in Wales. More than any other venue in world rugby, you are also playing the crowd when you come to Cardiff.

It didn’t help Ireland’s cause that Johnny Sexton had a rare off day. When he kicked out on the full at a restart you just knew his radar was off.

He is a perfectionist and one can only assume that his trademark meticulous preparation must have been compromised in the build-up to this game due to that hamstring strain.

In comparison to the pinpoint accuracy that defined the restart strategy against France only a few weeks ago, Ireland were very loose, kicking long into the Welsh twenty two which offered the siege gun boot of Halfpenny the chance to send Ireland back to halfway every time.

When Ireland did launch a series of relentless attacks in the second half, they were guilty of tunnel vision and allowed themselves to get far too narrow.

On at least two occasions they had massive overlaps out wide but their communication system broke down under pressure and a number of try scoring opportunities were missed.

One suspects that Joe Schmidt will have to review Ireland’s attacking strategy after this as his side looked a little to predictable and easy to read as they continually fed the inside runner seeking to attack a weak Welsh shoulder.

They rarely found one.

To enjoy 64% possession and 66% territory over the course of the 80 minutes and have a solitary penalty try from a traditional go to source — the line out maul — to show for your efforts is a big concern and an issue that will have to be addressed if Ireland are to compete when it really matters at a World Cup tournament, from the quarter final phase onwards.

Of the three Irish line breaks made, centurion Paul O’Connell accounted for two of those with two inspired lines of running. One may well have resulted in a try but the supporting Sexton was clearly tackled by Rhys Webb without the ball.

Despite a superb impact off the bench from Iain Henderson and Sean Cronin in particular, Ireland just didn’t have enough in attack to open up this well organised Welsh defence.

Grand Slams are hard to come by and this group must wait another year for another tilt at greatness. The fact that O’Connell may not be on board will only serve to make that task more difficult for, once again, the captain was superb and is a more effective carrier now than at any time in his magnificent career.

On the plus side, the Six Nations championship remains within Ireland’s grasp even if Wales will fancy their chances of racking up the points when they travel to Rome to face an injury-ravaged Italy.

England are in an even stronger position as they will know exactly what is required against a very poor French side for them to poach the title from Ireland given that they will be last into action next Saturday.

After a slow start the Six Nations committee have been afforded the grandstand finale they had hoped for, even if the Grand Slam itself will be nowhere on offer.

 

All to play for on Super Saturday

For the second season in a row, the RBS 6 Nations will go down to the wire, this time with three countries still in the hunt for the title.

England go into the final round level on points with Ireland and Wales but top of the table on points difference, four better than the Irish and 25 to the good over the Welsh.

Even better for them is that they will play last on Super Saturday and so will know exactly what is required of them as they kick off against France at Twickenham.

By then, their rivals will have played their last games, Wales kicking off the day in Rome — as England did a year ago— needing a big score to pile the pressure on.

The English had needed a 51-point winning margin in 2014 but came up short, leaving Ireland needing purely a win at Stade de France.

This time Ireland will be chasing a victory over Scotland at Murrayfield knowing they will need a healthy winning margin before sitting back and watch events unfold at Twickenham. Ireland boss Joe Schmidt, though, has warned against thinking about the final score without first taking care of the outcome.

“If you go looking for differentials without first of all making sure you have targeted the result, you are going to make it a pretty tough day for yourself,” he said.


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