Mole woke up this morning with an excitement only felt at Christmas time as a nipper. Wales had looked good against South Africa but hadn’t won and didn’t have a rake of Heineken Cups in the locker back home. Surely they’d run out of puff at some stage and make some stupid decisions running laterally and offloading in the ‘Welsh Way’.
Didn’t work out like that. A trip to Spala in 2007 was the precursor to Ireland’s nightmare in France. Wales went to Poland and came back fitter than ever. Wales are off the sauce during this World Cup as well, a voluntary call. What a contrast to lumpy England. How is Andy Powell coping? They stuck the course for the duration of the match and looked sharper than Ireland throughout.
Wales were under no illusion about what they were about. The moved the ball right to left in their first attack with pace and purpose, attacking the short side twice before going open again when Priestland launched a bomb. Williams looked held by Best but got up again and ran on before getting on the receiving end of quick ruck ball for the opening try.
Ireland had the wind for the first half and dominated possession but could only score three points, from a Ronan O’Gara kick that Mike Ross could have knocked over. O’Gara’s selection backfired completely and Wales exploited his deficiencies ruthlessly. The Australian team that won the World Cup in 1991 beat New Zealand comprehensively in the semi. They left a big hole for Grant Fox to run into and cut off his other options. Wales did much the same today and O’Gara’s inability to attack the line was best displayed when he took it at Warburton, only to be ignominiously dumped.
Wales dropped players back to cover O’Gara’s line kicking and he forced two in particular, with the wind at his back. Both kicks went dead and cost Ireland the ball. Unbelievably, Kidney kept O’Gara on for the start at the second half. Ireland scored during this period after good skills by Steven Ferris. Murray’s loopy pass bounced on the ground and invited the Welsh defence to try and exploit Ireland’s difficulties. Superstar Keith Earls finished well.
The next half hour was all about Wales. Priestland pinned Ireland back in the corners and against the wind, forced them to run at a ruthless defence. Two turnovers at lineouts proved costly and Mike Phillips broke down the blind side for a second try. Ireland’s failure to mark Phillips was astounding. He makes a huge amount happen for Wales and it must have been underlined during the week that Ireland couldn’t afford to allow him space.
It was difficult to discern what Ireland were trying to do. Wales completely imposed their game on Ireland and surprised them with their fitness and technique. They were half a step quicker in every phase of the game and their excellent tackling had the effect of a boxer throwing numerous jabs throughout the early rounds of a fight and draining his opponent’s energy and will.
The Welsh tackling was ruthless. It was a contrast of styles. Ireland had made a few high profile turnovers with their wrap up tackles against Australia but the Welsh aggression and technique was far more effective for the duration of the game. Phil Larder revealed that one of his roles in Woodward’s squad was overseeing one-on-one tackling technique before the practice was stopped during Andy Robinson’s tenure. It seems that Edwards has undertaken the same regime. Their tackling nullified the threat of O’Brien and Ferris and without front foot ball, and with no attacking threat at ten, Ireland lost a huge part of their attacking game. One tackle by 84 kg Lee Halfpenny on Sean O’Brien was particularly notable, as he stopped the Tullow man dead after a clever offload by Reddan looked like it would bring Ireland back to within a score with minutes to go.
Wales go on to face France in the semi. France pulled a wonderful Gallic performance out in the first half to gain a 16 point lead against England. They then held on for the second half. The sight of a delighted Marc Lièvremont smiling after their second try was great to see but the French are less than the sum of their parts and I’ll be amazed if they beat Wales.
Wales won the Sevens World Cup in 2009. They have the game to win this tournament as well. Available at 30-1 before their match against Fiji, they entered the knockouts under the radar, mirroring the profile of captain Sam Warburton. Should they continue with this standard of performance, they’ll be singing in the valleys for years.