A classic ‘game of two halves’ started with two prominent absentees. Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions coach has left his Welsh team without their galvanising force and they looked shorn of purpose for much of the first half. Justin Tipuric’s omission amazed the Mole, particularly in light of Ryan Jones’ thumb injury.
Tipuric is the form Welsh player in Wales, continuing from where he left off last season. The variability of Sam Warburton’s performances has left me unconvinced about his bona fides. Like Ryan Jones before him, the onus of Welsh captaincy seems exhausting and he has been unable to sustain the form that made him so prominent in the RWC and during the Grand Slam season. Warburton’s performances for Cardiff have been unimpressive and one wonders if Gatland, more ruthless than Howley, would have persisted with him at Tipuric’s expense.
In their two most recent meetings, Gatland has nailed Kidney. This time it was Kidney’s turn and Ireland exposed the Welsh systems and selections. Neither side chose to contest the breakdown with much intensity once the tackle had been made. Perhaps this is due to Poite’s refereeing and teams decide to err on the side of caution with the French man in charge. More likely it is due to the preferences of the defensive coaches and where they direct their team to apply energy.
Commentating on BBC, Martyn Williams noted that “the Welsh usually use an out-to-in blitz defence” and this was a feature of Shaun Edwards’ Wasps teams. Ireland’s lineout maul, Conor Murray’s threat around the fringes and some good lines from close in runners attracted Welsh defenders in close. This made the blitz a riskier option and Sexton’s deep alignment allowed him time to choose his options. In the first few minutes he twice grubbered in behind the Welsh and gave Ireland field position. In the eighth minute JJV Davies blitzed but Sexton was too deep and his hands too good as he freed O’Driscoll. The massive dog leg created by a missed blitz wasn’t fully exploited but left room enough for Ireland to get quality field position. From there Ireland repeated the dose and Jamie Roberts’ decision to compete at a ruck after tackling left Wales short of backs out wide.
It took two excellent passes from Sexton and O’Driscoll, along with a clever decoy from Kearney, to put Zebo away. Ireland executed well and Zebo served notice of his poacher’s ability at the highest level. Davies and Cuthbert were caught in no man’s land: tempted to blitz but left short by Roberts’ decision, no one made a strong tackle and Ireland were off the mark. O’Driscoll’s pass in particular was all class. In 2008 it looked like his hamstrings were gone but a changed conditioning regime has seen a leaner, more flexible O’Driscoll continue at the top for another five years. The threat of what he might do buys him time against defenders who don’t know whether to commit to him or not. Often they’re right to be afraid and his vision and ability to create space for his team mates must be set aside his hunger close to the line. At the top level he is still top drawer and the contrast with JJV Davies was noticeable. Davies is a fine player but he threw two straightforward passes into touch and handed Ireland back the initiative on both occasions.
If Wales’ hallmark of defence is blitzing then Ireland’s is the choke tackle. Both sides showed the rugby league antecedents of their defences by ceding ruck ball and creating a line across the pitch but Ireland were prepared to put a lot of effort into creating mauls. Here again Kidney’s coaching staff had done their homework and Ireland targeted Wales’ weaker ball carriers in particular. Missing Ryan Jones and Bradley Davies in the forwards, Wales occasionally used Coombs, an unfit Ian Evans and Matthews Rees to carry. Ireland pounced on this opportunity and created turnovers that they attacked purposefully off. A strip of Ian Evans created a counter attacking opportunity for Ireland and Conor Murray put Peter O’Mahony down the wing for a lot of yards.
O’Mahony is a puzzling footballer. He’s a good runner and handler but he’s not involved enough at all for my tastes. On a day when Donnchadh Ryan, Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy and Rory Best got through a mountain of work, O’Mahony departed on fifty minutes looking relatively fresh. You could see why Kidney wanted to experiment with him at openside last year; his skills are made for a linking flanker akin to Gleeson or Cabannes. He’s just not involved enough, particularly when compared to Tipuric who admittedly was fresh in the second half.
One of the reasons why Wales used the likes of the runners named above is that Jamie Roberts wasn’t fully fit. Roberts has been the scourge of Ireland in recent encounters and when he is on form he is a potent weapon. The flip side of being a big man with fast twitch fibres is that injuries are more likely to be incurred. Roberts has struggled with fitness all season and Ireland will be pleased to meet Wales now rather than in a few weeks’ time. Roberts will cause damage as the tournament progresses provided he stays injury free.
By half time Wales were twenty points down and the selection of Shingler was called into question in the minutes before the break when he ignored a five on four overlap against a doglegged disorganised Irish defence with the heavy artillery outside him. If the pass had gone a try was odds on and it would have been 20-10. Instead he took contact, Ryan slowed well and his misery was compounded when he gave away a penalty in front of the sticks that allowed Ireland a twenty point lead. Shingler’s selection showed again that glitches not apparent in club games can be exposed at international level.
Unfortunately Ireland were discovering that with Craig Gilroy and the young Ulster winger was struggling with his counterattacking and kicking. Time and again during the game Wales kicked to Gilroy and time and again he returned the ball to one of their runners in plenty of space or put it straight in. Stuart Lancaster will have looked at the tape and Farrell will target Gilroy should Kidney select him next week. I’d start Fitzgerald ahead of him which seems tough but the autumn and summer series are the time to give younger players experience. The Six Nations is Ireland’s priority.
Gilroy wasn’t the only member of the back three below form. Rob Kearney, normally imperious in the air, failed to win any of his duels and that stymied Ireland’s counterattacking game which is based on him reclaiming steeplers. With Ireland’s kicking game misfiring, the Welsh were able to gain a foothold in the second half and the arrival of Tipuric on 44 minutes looked tardy as the pace of Welsh attack increased noticeably with the trademark blue scrumcap on the pitch.
Fortunately Ireland’s tackling was heroic although Keith Earls’ positioning for Cuthbert’s try call his credentials as an international centre into question. Wales got their big men the ball in the second half when the power and pace of North and Cuthbert in particular was a potent reminder of the threat they pose. Ireland may have caught Wales at the best stage of the tournament as they have some quality players to reintroduce and other proven campaigners who will benefit from the game time.
From Ireland’s point of view, the coaching staff can take a bow for some tactical calls which bore fruit and sets them up for a tilt at the title. It’s a decade since Wales have lost more than one game in the Six Nations in Cardiff and England will not relish their trip to the Millenium. A Sunday kick off is less craic for fans but the extra day’s rest will be appreciated by an Ireland team that should have a clean bill of health for England’s visit. The game was played at a ferocious pace which will stand to the team and Ireland’s leadership core is in good form.
All told, it was a cracking opening weekend and Italy’s victory against France in Rome is a harbinger of things to come in the Six Nations. The Celtic nations’ decision to allow the Italians compete in the RaboDirect Pro 12 is to be applauded. Zebre are still struggling to find an identity but the transfer of the franchise to Rome would help grow the game in a populous and wealthy nation. The Mole opined last year that Italy will win a Six Nations before 2020 and results like Sunday’s make that notion seem less fanciful. The sound of a modern coliseum bom-bom-ba-bomming their way through one of the great anthems is just another reason to cherish a venerable tournament that still has it in spades.