Now that we have reached the point where the general public are being fed rugby stories every day as the third biggest world sports tournament reaches its climax, does the dedicated rugby follower have the expert answers for his or her work colleagues as the questions and comments are thrown?
“Have Ireland any chance of winning?”
“I heard France have sacked their coach”
“The young Welsh team must have a great chance against the Irish old guys, aren’t they always getting injured?”
“Those English guys are having a good time out there, they’re always getting into trouble!”
Leaving aside the prospects of the English and French teams, the coaching and technical staff of the Irish and Welsh teams have had to work overtime over the past four days as they analysed and prepared how to play against each other. Sure, they have done it all before during the Six-Nations Tournament, but this is different.
- Firstly, unlike the Six Nations where fixtures are set in stone about two years in advance, the certainty of whom you play and when was not finally determined until last Sunday morning, after Ireland beat Italy.
- Secondly, it became apparent during the Pool games that both Wales and Ireland have expanded their playing repertoire way beyond that which they showed in this season’s Six Nations games.
- Thirdly, the Six Nations is not a knock-out event. Whilst defeat can spell the end of Grand Slam or Triple Crown hopes for the season, to be beaten does not mean the end of your competition.
Because of those differences and also because the squads have now had almost ten weeks together honing their skills and teamwork, analysis and preparation in the World Cup is a very different challenge.
So what will the Irish coaching and analysis team [Gert Small, Alan Gaffney, Les Kiss, Mark Tainton, Greg Feek, Les Kiss and Mervyn Murphy] have uncovered about Wales? How can their work assist Declan Kidney in developing a game plan in which the senior Irish players can be confident and apply with conviction for the 80 minutes next Saturday?
This is key to the outcome. For both the games against Australia and Italy, it was apparent that the Irish players were very confident that their game plan and tactics were correct and they stuck with instructions until the points began to accumulate on the scoreboard.
So often this is not the case and talented players that they are, they are always encouraged to use their initiative to “play what’s in front of you”. When coaches say this, they usually mean, “if the opposition screw up when attacking us, don’t be afraid to run the length of the pitch from your own 22 and score, rather than finding touch on our 10 metre line” or “if two of their mid-field collide when we’re attacking in their 22, cancel the planned cross-kick and just take the break down the middle”. However, having confidence in the game plan and tactics is the keystone of good teamwork and high tempo rugby, just as Ireland demonstrated in the second half against Italy.
So confidence in the game plan and tactics are critical for success. But they’re not the most important things. The most important attribute the Irish players will take onto the pitch on Saturday is knowing how not to lose a vital match.
Individually and collectively, they have earned this experience from countless losing Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Heineken Cup games over the past decade. This is not experience gained when you collect a medal or a trophy, whether big or small. These are the scars of the bad days, which become tougher than the surrounding surfaces and inure you against repeating the habits of past failures.
The likes of O’Driscoll, Darcy, O’Gara, Reddan, Best, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Cullen, Jennings and Leamy have been playing in three competitions each year on major rugby stages for up to a dozen years; whilst they may have won five or six trophies each in that period, each has the recollection of between twenty-five and thirty really ‘bad days at the office’ from which to accumulate vital and unique experience.
For good and great players, experience has been the single most important factor in the make-up of previous World Cup winners. In knock-out tournaments, it’s at a premium. Knowing how bitter loss tastes, knowing how to snatch a victory … the only currency worth a curse is experience.
While recognising that experience of players will play a key role in how the match unfolds, it’s essentially an intangible. Analysis is about working from concrete evidence and precedents. What have the Irish back-room discovered about their Welsh opposition?
These are the dozen most discernable patterns that emerge from close review of their games against S Africa, Samoa (World Cup Pool Games), England and Argentina (warm-up games in August):
- Wales frequently play a different pattern in the first and second half of games;
- Wales has a very heavy pack, well over 910 Kg, amongst the heaviest remaining [along with England];
- Wales throw almost 90% of their line-out to Nos. 2,3 or 4 in the line-out;
- Wales always wheel their opponents scrum left – because scrum-half Phillips is so strong, he is able to attack the strongest opposition No 8;
- Only Shane Williams, James Hook and Mike Phillips play with free licence, everyone else plays to a disciplined pattern;
- Wales prefer to play on the right touchline and they kick to opponents accordingly;
- From line-out possession, the passes from Phillips to Jamie Roberts wreak the greatest havoc among opponents. Against World Champions South Africa, this tactic yielded five clear breaks during the 2nd half of the game;
- Wales have created more than 85% of their line-breaks in the four matches mentioned playing on the right side of the pitch – Shane Williams excepted, their backline are all right-handed!;
- Denying Wales line-out throw-ins is the most effective way to negate their back-line. Any coach reviewing their game against Samoa would recognise the tactical patterns that almost worked;
- Hooker, Huw Bennett, the smallest man in the Welsh pack, was only 4th choice for 6Ns;
- With the exceptions of Alun Wyn Jones and Toby Faletou, all of their forwards lead with their head and go low into contact, they re-cycle the ball between their legs, with the length of their body protecting the ball from turn-over;
- Except for Sam Warburton, who is their resident expert at recovering the ball from opponents (turnovers), every Welsh player concentrates on tacking opponents by the legs, as low and quickly as possible – they do not “grapple” with opponents in upright wrestles;
Knowing the opposition is just part of the battle in any Test Match. In this case, it only serves to convince that an Irish win will be very well earned!