It was a bit early in Andy Farrell’s tenure to be talking about a must-win game, but it was hard to escape the pivotal nature of Saturday’s tasty Six Nations encounter against Wales.
With the likelihood of a victory over a hapless Italian side to come in round four, a win over Wayne Pivac’s men and a baseline return of three home wins would represent a very decent start for the former rugby league legend.
Wales have proved to be stubborn opposition in recent times and are always primed for games against Ireland, especially when Warren Gatland was directing operations. Much of that was due to historic events surrounding the coach but, from the Welsh players’ perspective, their desire was driven by the feeling of being second-class citizens when it came to battles between our provinces and their regional sides.
What Wales brought into this contest was consistency. The reigning grand slam champions and World Cup semi-finalists enjoy a higher world ranking than Ireland at present and were keen to drive that home once again. The fact that Ireland hadn’t beaten a team ranked higher than them for 15 months offered an indication of the recent challenges Ireland have endured.
From an Irish perspective, the driving force for this game was more internal than the sight of the famous red shirt. Ireland came up short in a number of areas against the Scots and were fortunate in escaping to victory, aided no end by a calamitous error by Scotland captain Stuart Hogg.
After a stuttering opening against the Scots, the necessity to be quicker out of the blocks was emphasised in advance of kick-off by new skipper Johnny Sexton. A Hadleigh Parkes try less than two minutes into last season’s encounter at the Principality Stadium left Ireland facing an immediate uphill battle they failed to negotiate the horrible conditions.
With another storm forecast in advance of this one, Ireland had to set the agenda and register points early on. In that, they were aided by the delayed arrival of Storm Ciara to Dublin. If Ireland were slow to fire against Scotland, they certainly heeded the captain’s words, dominating both territory and possession in the opening quarter to an extraordinary degree.
The hallmark of this Irish side at its height under Joe Schmidt in 2018 was their ability to engineer a foothold in the opposition 22 and register points with amazing consistency. Matching that level of opportunism has become a challenge in recent times and it appeared as if Ireland had lost the art of converting pressure into points in that opening quarter.
The frequency with which they turned over possession was also concerning.
Ireland conceded a penalty off the first scrum metres from the Welsh line and that was followed by a breakdown turnover, a choke-tackle turnover, and the sacking of a five-metre lineout maul.
Ireland’s failure to turn their early dominance into scores was concerning given that Wales would play with the aid of a strong wind in the second half. The addition of a breakdown specialist in former Lions captain Sam Warburton to the Welsh coaching ticket appeared a masterstroke at that stage, with Ireland coughing up possession in vital areas with worrying regularity.
Finally, Larmour’s amazing footwork, coupled with very poor Welsh defending, yielded the try Ireland richly deserved right on the 20-minute mark. The fact that it was created by an attacking variation to the standard one-out runners Ireland normally employ close to the opposition line — similar Sexton’s try against Scotland — was notable, even if launching three attackers against five defenders wasn’t exactly what new attack coach Mike Catt would have had in mind.
That try apart, the most pleasing aspect of Ireland’s opening quarter was the regularity with which the back three of Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, and Andrew Conway got their hands on the ball. In previewing this game, that was an advance I wanted to see, along with a licence for the wingers to roam.
The fact that Stockdale had four decent involvements in the opening 10 minutes alone, two of which were on the opposite wing, was really encouraging.
From an attacking perspective, Ireland brought far more variation than we have seen for some time.
Ten clean line-breaks — Wales only managed two — bore testament to that, with Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw regularly finding holes in the Welsh midfield.
Henshaw was having a blinder up to the point that he was forced off for a head injury assessment, while Aki’s capacity to get Ireland over the gain line off set plays was utilised to the full.
Ireland’s midfield dominance, coupled with the frequency that the back three made positive impacts, can be traced directly to the fact that the forwards produced far quicker ball from the breakdown than they managed the previous week.
The statistics confirm this, with 60% of their ruck recycles taking three seconds or less. They achieved nothing like that level of efficiency against Scotland. The biggest winner here was Conor Murray, who enjoyed an excellent outing.
Ireland’s breakdown work improved immeasurably as the contest progressed as Wales struggled to compete for long periods. All the improvements witnessed in the seven days since the Scotland game can be distilled down to the simple fact that Ireland won the physical battle in the contact zone in this game.
It helped too that Wales were without some key personnel. If Gatland was a lucky general, Pivac will rue the loss of several quality backs before and during this contest. Two of his most potent attackers in Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams haven’t yet featured in the championship due to injury. In the circumstances, to lose his chief try-scorer in Josh Adams before half time, and Dan Biggar early in the second half, was cruel.
Parkes looked like repeating his try-scoring feat of last season on 53 minutes with a brilliant line, but lost control in the act of grounding. It was the closest Wales came to stressing Ireland. That and the scrum penalty Dave Kilcoyne generated when dominating Dillon Lewis 10 minutes later energised Ireland to such a degree that they never looked like losing from that point on.
The fact that Farrell chose to withdraw Sexton and Peter O’Mahony, captain and vice-captain respectively, on 70 minutes and spring the third new cap of his short reign in Max Deegan augurs well for the future.
With his core leadership group observing from the sideline, Farrell will be thrilled to see his young charges retain sufficient composure and belief to deliver what could yet prove a vital fourth try and accompanying bonus point with minutes remaining. That capped a really productive and satisfying performance for the new coaching team.
England’s win over Scotland, in horrendous conditions at Murrayfield, means they are back in the championship race after their opening-day defeat to France. They now return to Twickenham for the first time since their appearance in the World Cup final in Japan, which will make Ireland’s next task even more difficult. That said, travelling to London with two wins already in the bag, will work wonders for confidence.