Many thanks to all involved with the Aviva Fan Studio for their excellent hospitality on matchday
O me of little faith! There was I making my prediction of a three-point win for Wales!
Well I still stand by that forecast based on the evidence I had before Saturday. My thinking was that despite all the chatter about the predictability of “Warrenball”, surely he would approach this contest with a view to bringing something different to the table to throw us off our game.
And what made me more sure was the memory of Wellington in 2011. Then we were the ones riding the crest of a wave of success following four pool wins out of four including the famous “choke-tackle” win over the Wallabies. We seemed to think all we had to do was show up and play our brand of rugby and it was plain sailing to the semifinals, only for Gatland and his charges to wait for us in the long grass and crush our dreams.
So with all of that in mind, though I was confident after last week that we would be easily able to step up to the mark, I still have to say I was surprised to see a side coached by a Lions series- and two-time Grand Slam-winner to underperform so badly on such a big occasion.
You probably think that by dedicating the early part of my writeup to Warren I'm preparing a dig over the whole BOD-gate thing, because if you went by the mainstream media in the lead-up to this game, the Irish fans are “obsessed” by it. Sure, it added a bit of needle to a contest that didn't really need any more, but that isn't the only reason I would be laying blame at his door for this result.
Because the fact of the matter is that while our defence was as solid and ever and our lineout/maul combo is approaching a point where it is nigh-on unstoppable, with Joe Schmidt's specialty being back-line play I'd be surprised if he wasn't at least a little bit disappointed with our poor offensive output in the opening half an hour, as putting points on the board early is something his brand of game normally relies upon.
But before I focus on that negative...let's face it, we won well on the day so let's turn the spotlight on something good first, and what better place than our defence. If I have the time to check this properly I will, but I wonder if any team has gone two rounds of the Five/Six Nations before with a single-digit figure in the “points against” column”? I would be extremely surprised if so.
To be honest, even if the Welsh did try something other than batter us into submission and bully us at the breakdown, they would have been hard pressed to get past our solid brand of D. At the centre there was the tag-team of Darce and Drico...everything that has been said about this pairing already has, but once again they proved the doubters wrong by keeping their channel well and truly shut.
One Welshman who knows this better than most is Scott Williams...the stadium held its collective breath in the first half as BOD stayed down after a collision but turns out he was only winded and it was Scott who had to be replaced by his namesake Liam, aka Kevin Bacon of the Scarlets.
Naturally our centres couldn't do it alone to keep the Welsh at bay, and once more we relied heavily on our back row and in particular Peter O'Mahony, who should have been man of the match last week yet picked up where he left off to earn the award this time. I disagree with those who say he is a guaranteed Irish captain down the line...however justified his beef late in the game he shouldn't have gone near Wayne Barnes (who had another bad day in the office though thankfully it didn’t cost us too much) never mind stay in his face for so long...he definitely has work to do on that score.
But there was no denying that despite the plethora of Lions back-row forwards opposite him he was very much the King of the Breakdown area and was always able to dive in and lock his body position to force turnovers when we needed him most. He is also an extremely reliable option at lineout time, I might add. Not sure there will be much room for Stephen Ferris in this team when both are fit!
So we not only shut-down Warrenball, we did it while only allowing Leigh Halfpenny one shot at goal. Where were our points to come from?
To be fair to the Welsh they weren't too shabby on the defensive front in the early stages, but the fact remains we saw a lot of our customary front-foot ball yet seemed fresh out of ideas as to what to do with it. At least we were being creative, but I'm not altogether sure we were going with the right options.
“We'd talked about the threat that George North posed with the ball in hand but also about how vulnerable he can be on the turn, being such a big lad.”Johnny Sexton, Becoming A Lion
I was reminded of that passage when I saw Sexton do his cross-field kicks trying to match-up Andrew Trimble against North. This was clearly the net result of our preparation when it came to finding a way past the Welsh blitz defence, and it was a high-risk strategy that brought little or no reward. Sure, if it came off (as it did for Nacewa in the Heineken Cup) we'd be hailing them as geniuses, but my point is that we could have tried more conventional means first.
As a result the clock ticked into the 30th minute and our lead was just 6 and I can't deny I was starting to get worried, especially when the Welsh had a rare attacking lineout on our 22. The passage of play that followed, for me anyway, settled the match.
I thought we would be the ones to have a go at a “trick-play” lineout, but I guess the Welsh have had a lot more success with it in the past, so at this point of the match they gave something a go. I say “something”, because I'm not quite sure what it was as they made a complete balls of it!
Whatever wires got crossed, Hibbard's throw went straight to Toner, and shortly after that we had Sexton placing a precision kick forward into the Welsh 22 which Priestland could only deal with by carrying it into touch on his own 5m line to avoid the advancing Jamie Heaslip.
So from a dangerous situation down the other end, we now had a lineout ourselves right on the Welsh line. Enter our pack, brilliantly depicted by our “camera guy” Ken Bohane in the lead photo.
It's not like our lineout-maul strategy is anything new, but clearly what John Plumtree has brought to our coaching ticket is a degree of technical precision that could well provide a template for the game around the world. The throw, the catch, the bind, the drive, all had to be perfect – and despite the calibre of players opposite, it could not be stopped and just like that we were over the line courtesy of Chris Henry.
With the icing on the cake provided by a wonderful conversion from the touchline by Sexton, all of a sudden we had a 13-0 lead to take into the break that obviously was much, much more comfortable.
As you can probably tell by the video at the top of the page, I was lucky enough to watch the match via the Aviva Fan Studio. Hosted by Aidan Power and Daniella Moyles it was a privilege to be in the company of sporting greats such as Paul Wallace, Paddy Wallace and Olympian sailor Annalise Murphy. At halftime the panel gave their thoughts on the action so far, and my being a blogger made me an easy target for Aidan to go to for some fan reaction.
To my amazement I found myself channelling my inner George Hook. I said something like “Happy so far, looking for a good second half, for we all know we have had leads like this before”. Aidan pivoted this to the panel as if I meant the New Zealand match, but I actually meant on a more general basis, like the last two times we played France as well.
Thankfully I needn't have worried. Not only did the defence stay solid in the second half, but even when the Welsh did manage to win little battles, like Jenkins over Martin Moore at the Leinster prop's first scrum of the day which provided their only three points, we had Gatland feeling the need to change his front row, so it didn't trouble us again, and I reckon when Paulie was hauled ashore it was clear Joe felt the points were in the bag.
Meanwhile on our side of things we were able to make substitutions without it affecting our strategy one iota. The lineout-maul that led to our second try towards the end may not have gotten over the line as the first had, but even with only one recognised lock on the pitch (get well soon Dan Tuohy by the way - he's had a great series) we were easily able to set up Paddy Jackson to touch down despite the cheap shot from Liam Williams as he did.
Should there be a citing for his dropping the shoulder? Probably, but as far as I'm concerned that would be a good thing for the Welsh as I see him as a liability for this level. At least Mike Phillips has been known to contribute to matches like this...these days he prefers to vent his frustrations at pin-ups idolised by girls everywhere...and when it ISN'T at Rob Kearney, he sometimes has a go at One Direction as well!
But back to serious matters...two areas stood out for me overall. First it was great to see such solid performances from our back row and our wingers...all were positions where we thought we were missing extremely key players, yet they were hardly missed.
Then there's Devin Toner. Wasn't exactly man-of-the-match and the entire pack (bench included) were superb, but I wonder is his the first name on John Plumtree's team-sheet so long as he is fit. Having watched him develop over the years at Leinster, I remember the days when he had the height but neither the aggression nor technical ability. Now it appears he has it all in spades, and he doesn't just go out there to snag lineouts like apples off a tree either. I swear I have seen him fill in at scrum half a few times in recent weeks!
So two games played in the 2014 Six Nations, and two great wins. Yes, I have concerns about our ability to score points early. Given that a Triple Crown will need to be won in Twickenham and a Grand Slam in Paris, I think I am justified in having those concerns.
But if you think that in any way I am trying to take credit away from Joe Schmidt & his squad for their performances so far, maybe my final contribution to the Aviva Fan Studio will make you think otherwise.
“I think if we were to pick a Lions squad NOW for a crucial third test, we would not only be selecting a different 13, we'd also have a different coach.”
Well done lads. Roll on Twickers. JLP
Also this weekend