I honestly have to laugh at those “commenters” out there who are more interested in focusing on Ireland's second half than they are their first when it comes to this match.
This was always going to be a cup final, and much like last night's Super Bowl in which the scoring followed a very similar pattern, it always about who took the spoils, not how the result was achieved.
So if you want to spin this epic Cardiff contest as a failure by Declan Kidney's side then go right ahead...but that's just simply not what transpired.
The main weakness in the Irish camp was well documented before kickoff – backup to Mike Ross. And that wasn't a slight on Declan Fitzpatrick either, it was more about the way the talent deficit was handled by the coaching staff since the Twickenham Twagedy last March.
All of which meant that if Ireland was going to come up with a plan to win this match, there was only one way to go...aim to hit the Welsh from the off, build up a lead, and tackle like demons to bring it home. Guess what – that's exactly what they did.
Not that all was rosy from the Irish, and don't you worry I'll get to that in this piece, but I have to start by saying that this was a monumental result achieved with a mostly well-worked, well-executed gameplan that not only got the Welsh monkey off our backs but also injected a huge dose of championship-winning belief into a squad that badly needed it.
Since I'm pretty sure you've heard “that BOD pass” and “that Zebo flick” mentioned to death since Saturday, I'm going to start looking at the action itself by focusing on two other pivotal moments that I feel proved to be the difference on the day.
You want to talk about a Welsh comeback in the second half? Fine – but imagine how strong it would have been if the halftime score was 10-20 and not 3-23 as it ended up being. Well by rights it should have been the first score, only for an amazing goal-line stand.
All things considered, it was a decent first Six Nations appearance from Craig Gilroy. It seemed that the home side's offensive strategy from the kickoff was to target him, and although he wasn't exactly perfect under the high ball, he certainly did enough to make them go looking for a Plan B. Still...it was his poor clearance towards the end of the first half that lead to strong carries from the likes of Cuthbert, Coombes & Warburton and suddenly the Welsh were having their first serious foray into our 22. Several tough tackles & phases later, Rory Best forces a holding penalty and Ireland have the chance to clear. That defensive series was as good as a try to Ireland in my book.
Then we march down the field and get three points ourselves to widen the margin even further, which meant a whopping 20-point margin going into the break. But anyone who knows this game will tell you that the result was by no means certain. In fact, that very same stadium had experienced similar comebacks in its day.
So Sexton put the restart deep, and the Welsh, desperate for possession, decided to run the ball. Enter Mike McCarthy, Donncha Ryan & Sean O'Brien with quite possibly the most perfectly-executed “choke tackle” you'll ever see, certainly the most timely. In an instant the possession the home side craved was taken from them, and a steady scrum plus a few phases later, the great BOD himself was diving over the line and THAT was the ball game.
From then on, the Welsh had only one option...burn the playbook and throw the kitchen sink at us. They knew it, we knew it, and the battle was on.
But there was an asterisk beside the O'Driscoll try. As Sexton was lining up his conversion (which he nailed to seal an amazing 6 for 6 haul which nobody anywhere seems to be highlighting), Gordon D'Arcy was being taken off with a dead leg that had been bothering him since the first half.
With all the talk about our lack of backup to the 3 position, very little was said about what we would do if our number 12 got injured. I did think of it before the match, but always assumed that should it happen, O'Gara would come on at out-half and Sexton would move to 12. That thinking, don't forget, was before the match when the thought of us having a 30-3 cushion into the second half would have been pure fantasy.
Now I KNOW the formbook doesn’t look favourably on O'Gara when it comes to tackling. But I also can't think of a more reliable out-half to run down a clock and bring home a decent lead. And I also believe a weakened 10 channel is a lot easier to protect than a 12 or 13 one, especially when you consider the tackling talent we had at 4,5,6,7,8 plus of course Sexton himself, who kept going despite getting a mouthful of shoe for his trouble.
Instead the coaching staff chose to go for Keith Earls, who went to outside centre while O'Driscoll went to 12. Yes, both players have abilities in those positions, but in one fell swoop we went from having arguably the world's greatest ever 12/13 combo to a pairing who have only played together once. In this age of rugby where decoy runners play such a large part in creating space, it really was no surprise that once the kitchen sink was thrown at us there would be a way through and just like that the first Welsh try from Cuthbert was made look remarkably easy.
I don't want to be too hard on Earls for being stranded like he was. But having seen the replay I'm surprised a photographer didn't nab a shot of him grasping through mid-air at nothing much like Gavin Henson did with Tommy Bowe back in 2009. If I had to fault Declan Kidney for his selection of this Irish squad, I would say that if he wasn't going to go for the O'Gara 10/Sexton 12 thing, he at least needed a number 23 on the bench who had played both 12 and 13 at provincial level. Like Fergus McFadden maybe?
But anyway…Earls was only on the pitch, and to be fair to him he went on to make 9 tackles which is decent for a full 80 minutes at test level, let alone the 36 minutes he was on. So it could be said that he and BOD sorted out their positioning somewhat...the Welsh would need something else to close the gap even further. Enter Monsieur Roman Poite.
Some people wonder why a lemon only squirts them in the eye. I say it's because it doesn't ONLY squirt you there, it's just that's the only time you really notice it. Same goes for sports fans and officials. Many say they dislike certain refs because they're convinced they only give calls against their team...but that's to be expected and one-eyed fans are a big part of what makes sports discussions so entertaining.
Personally I tend not to be so hard on Poite. For example, the “holding after the tackle” call on Cian Healy that led to the first Welsh score on 33 minutes seemed a bit harsh. Yet shortly after that, he made a similar call on Jamie Roberts (thanks to Best as I mentioned earlier) that got us out of jail big time. So at least he was consistent in that regard.
Yet on 46 minutes, Mike McCarthy got pinged for not releasing. A fair enough call. But it was the first time we had conceded a defensive penalty in our own 22 the entire match, and Poite chose to issue a warning to Jamie Heaslip, one which meant that Rory Best had to be sent to the bin later on.
I wouldn't have much objection to the events of the last paragraph if the ref had at least spoken to Warburton after what Andrew Coombes did in the first half (click pic for better look). In fact, I could make a strong case for his transgression being a straight yellow, but if Poite was about issuing warnings on the first red zone no-no, he should have done it then, which should have eventually led to the final yellow card tally being a lot more reflective of the two sides’ no-nos than 0-2 did.
All of this meant not only was the kitchen sink being hurled at us for the final quarter, it was being done with an extra man. If anything it was a credit to our tackling that the second Welsh try from Halfpenny was over in the corner. Who knows how the match would have turned out had the Welsh full-back gotten the conversion, but it being out wide helped it be a 15 point deficit rather than a 13 point one and at that stage of the game, that was crucial.
On the subject of Leigh Halfpenny... (or ½p as the Welsh twitterati call him) he was outstanding on Saturday. When it comes to Lions selection he may have had a head start on Rob Kearney this season but with running with the ball, strong tackling and overall reliability he certainly must have the inside track for Gatland's 15 jumper. In a way it's a testament to Kearney's ability that the opposition won't kick to him anymore but this means that he has to show his mettle in other areas and the Welshman is certainly ahead of him right now.
And overall credit MUST go to Wales for the whole “kitchen sink” thing. George Hook will probably never live down his “lacking moral fibre” comment and I'm pretty sure he doesn't represent the majority view of Ireland fans. They had been put on the back foot but found a way to come roaring back and they certainly shouldn't rule themselves out of this tournament just yet.
On the 69th minute came Faletau's almost-try at the base of the post when he was brilliantly held up by Sexton, followed by the sin-binning of Conor Murray for waving his hand (again incredibly soft compared to what Coombes did) and although we had been lucky to survive Best's absence without a scrum being called and O'Brien throwing the darts, we were again down a man, this time for the final ten minutes.
A look at the tackle stats shows you how awesome Ireland's defence was. Warburton and Faletau led the home side with 11 each – nobody else got to double figures. On the Irish side, everyone who did deserves a mention : Sexton & Best 10 BOD 11 Healy 15 Ryan & Heaslip 16 McCarthy 18 and finally Sean O'Brien a Herculean 23.
You say Ireland folded in the second half? I say we came out on top in a 40-minute period when both sides played out of their skins, literally in some cases given all the stitching that needed doing afterwards.
NOW I can get to the two moments of magic everyone is talking about.
The Zebo thing is the one we will all remember. And no doubt kids everywhere will be trying it. And yes, it was awesome “tekkers”. But to make Cian Healy's try all about that would take away from all else that went with the move. Rory Best's block & catch? Heaslip's pluck out of the air and pass despite being tackled? Gilroy's pirouette and keeping the ball alive? O'Mahony and Murray's urgency? All of the above combined to keep the Welsh defence scrambling allowing Church to have the space to barge over.
But I have saved the best for last, the BOD pass that led to first try. Actually the first Baltimore Ravens touchdown was very similar in that the quarterback put the ball where he expected the receiver to be, rather than where he saw him. That's all very well in gridiron because those guys practise it every week (not to mention they're allowed pass the ball forward!). What O'Driscoll did took three Welsh defenders out of the equation (most notably Cuthbert who I still think must be dizzy from his confused spinning) to put Zebo over.
If Halfpenny has the inside track for the Lions 15 jumper, I think we can be in no doubt who has dibs on 13 the way things stand. I mean – if you want to fault the man for his box-kick towards the end, go ahead. I'll do the same the next time I see Lionel Messi as a goalkeeper letting in a penalty ;-) Oh, and Rory Best certainly has a good shout for the hooker spot; if he shores up the darts he could be home and hosed before this Championship is done.
So...when all is said and done, we cleared a massive hurdle on what is still a long road to Six Nations glory. I said in my preview...
“…what I feel we need more than anything else is something that you can’t draw on a blackboard or look for in a DVD session. We need the team to keep their head in the game for the full 80 minutes, forgetting the four other matches to come in the competition, and once we’re deep into the match, focus on dealing with what’s in front of them rather than trying to stick to complex sets of strategies”
...and we did just that, so bravo to everyone involved. And the fact that the result came against a nemesis we fell short against on the last three attempts makes the payback all the sweeter.
Between now and next Sunday, I will be doing everything I can to make sure the English don't get away with claiming underdog status for our clash in Dublin. Having said that, we may be battered and bruised, but we certainly have every chance. Bring it on. JLP
Also this weekend