Before I harp on the match itself, I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of theories I reckon were firmly disproven in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
The first was the nonsensical grenade thrown by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen recently suggesting Six Nations rugby is somehow inferior entertainment-wise to the game in the southern hemisphere. If you watched this match and claim it was boring simply because there were only two tries, I really don’t know what to say. These were two well-drilled squads going toe to toe for 80 minutes and when I take away my disappointment in the result it’s hard to deny it was an enthralling contest.
The second theory which might need to be downgraded to myth is the notion that Irish players have an edge over other countries in the aerial game because of their GAA background. Unless there are more Gaelic Football pitches in the valleys than I’m aware of, the Welsh proved that in actual fact a pure rugby upbringing doesn’t hold you back from being able to catch an oval ball from a height after all. Now before I get GAA supporters after me...I have nothing against the gaelic sports at all, but I really do think that the catching point has been overstated in the extreme of late.
OK that’s enough stalling, time to get on with this very uncomfortable subject matter.
In my match preview I pointed out areas where I felt we’d be up against it on the day and I called them “www” so before I get our own very significant part in our downfall, what say we see first how my three headings panned out.
WALES - Say what you want about the Welsh regions with their poor attendances and lack of success in Europe...none of that is ever a factor when that red test jersey goes on. And boy do they know how to milk every single advantage out of that national pride.
From control over the Millennium Stadium roof to the pre-match pyrotechnics to the rousing anthem performance….and my personal favourite, their press taking one idiotic comment about margarine by a former Irish international and spreading it as thickly as they can all over every form of media they can find.
This isn’t me complaining about anything they’re doing, mind you...this is respect. With that kind of build up you can really see how whatever XV is selected they can kickoff matches at the great Cardiff venue with the ultimate “losing is not an option” mindset, and that is certainly what happened on Saturday.
While much has been said about the tackling which kept us out in mid-second half, I was actually more impressed by how they set about "killing" the Sam Warburton sin-binning, particularly the way they set up Dan Biggar's drop goal. On a day when all the talk was about the Irish halfbacks, the Welsh ones were in control at that stage.
Man of the match went to Sam Warburton but I’m not sure if that kind of award can go to someone who spent 10 mins off the park and cost your side a penalty try? My choice was Alun-Wyn Jones. Dominating your opposite number at test level is tough enough at the best of times, but when it’s Paul O’Connell when he’s earning his 100th cap you most certainly deserve a medal. AWJ’s counter-ruck against the Irish skipper set up the territory which eventually led to the lone Welsh try and while he wasn’t involved in their multiple lineout steals, he was certainly at the heart of their having near-perfect control on their own throw.
Now for all the mega hype in the Welsh press regarding their display it has to be said they weren’t perfect by any stretch...for example right after they took that commanding 12-0 lead, Scott Baldwin seemed to be determined to get our duck-egg off the scoreboard, shipping two pens in a row, the second a high tackle right after the kickoff which came from Sexton missing the first attempt.
But it is fair to say that overall they bettered us from jersey 1 through 23 and yes I’m including their starting props even though they didn’t see more than 40 minutes each.
WARREN - Ireland’s three Six Nations victories before this contest came mostly on the back of our perfectionism throughout the matchday 23...so for me Gatland’s task was twofold...challenge his own players to bring the same accuracy and find a way to tweak “Warren-ball” in such a way as to throw us off our game. And I have to say Gatland got both spot on, with the second part coming from a decision to fight fire with fire.
The mindset seemed to be “we know what Ireland are going to do, so let’s put it up to them...literally”. It wasn’t just the fact that they were beating us to the punch on their own kick chases, it was that they had multiple players doing the chasing and catching...with Halfpenny, Roberts and Liam Williams all in on the act in the opening stages.
Then of course we have the incredible resilience in defence...I talk more about that later from the referee’s viewpoint but you certainly can’t fault the Welsh for a whopping 250-odd tackles (numbers vary depending on source). And even that incredible blight on the game called the choke tackle worked in the home side’s favour towards the end, making for a satisfying afternoon for Gatland but also for his defensive sidekick Shaun Edwards.
And it’s not as though Ireland’s own defence was miles below par...there was really only the one error in concentration between Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip but not only did the Welsh take full advantage but also it becomes a critical error when you consider the home side made none.
So serious kudos to Gatland and his staff for winning the preparation battle, though I will be interested to see what he will do next week without his starting props...will Adam Jones answer his phone? ;-)
WAYNE - “He’s consistent and that’s all you can ask for”, said Jonathan Davies in the BBC commentary box about Wayne Barnes. Great soundbite alright, but can we examine it for a moment? “Consistency” doesn’t just mean you award a penalty one way for one team and then the same way for the other team moments later. It also means you ref that way for the whole match. The Welsh tackling was absolutely awesome during that match-defining siege on their line around the 55th minute, but I dare anyone to show me how they didn’t commit any of the fouls Ireland were pinged for in the opening quarter at least once.
“The slight bonus for Wales was that nobody was yellow carded for Wales following the collapsed maul”, said Eddie Butler after our penalty try. Funny he should say that...having sin-binned Sam Warburton in the first half for a foul right after a warning, Barnes issues another one after the 3rd Welsh penalty in the 2nd half with Ireland in possession. That alone is worth debating (why doesn’t EVERY penalty after a warning mean yellow - and yes, I mean for both sides?)...but from the lineout/maul which came after that 2nd warning, it is Sam himself who clearly hauls down the maul. That’s a pen try anyway, even without the prior warning, so surely with it, there should also be a card, which in Warburton’s case would have to be red. Barnes clearly had a split second decision to make, and I say he bottled it.
No doubt I will get much reaction for the above paragraphs. Am I saying Irish transgressions weren’t also missed? No. Am I saying Ireland would have definitely scored the 7 points we were short had the above things not happened? No. But are the officials above analysis? No. I’m saying Wayne was a factor, not the factor. Let’s just say I won’t be setting up any “I hate Wayne” pages anytime soon (that Rolland page is still there and receiving hate messages btw)! I don’t think he’s biased and I don’t even think he’s incompetent...but I do think he tries too hard to be seen to be fair and often falls between two stools in the process.
Right….that’s enough about external factors which made a difference, time to turn the spotlight on ourselves.
I have two themes I’d like to explore, and both involve accuracy.
First and foremost, we most certainly didn’t have it. Right from the opening kickoff the Welsh were in our faces and between being outjumped, kicks going out on the full, that one time when Sexton wasn’t even aware the ball was coming at him, and most definitely our biggest area of failure on the day, our lineouts in key attacking situations, we just were not at the races.
Sure, it can be said that the home side pushed us in those areas and did much to make those mistakes happen, but we also have to look at positions on the park where we are relying on big displays from senior players...Conor Murray was a touch off the pace, Rory Best wasn’t on song with his darts but most of all Johnny Sexton had a day he’d like to forget. The Welsh raised their game to the level at which they expected us to perform but the fact was we never made it there, and however you may want to scrutinize the individual penalty decisions that led to the early 12-0 lead, even with my greenest goggles on I have to admit we deserved to be that far behind.
But now we get to my second point about accuracy. I actually believe that you can still win rugby matches without it, yet rather than knuckle down and try to play what was before us, we seemed to plough on and wait to see if it was going to somehow return. And the shining example of this was the clear overlap we completely butchered in the second half that could have given us a fighting chance of winning.
Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe were waving their arms so strongly I thought they were going to actually take off. Yet we had the ball right at the try line and we were determined to keep it in the forwards. Either the lines of communication were faulty or the message got through and was ignored...and I’m sorry but we have to look at Paulie for this one. He was standing over the ball under the Welsh posts and I’m all for backing yourself & your pack and of course we’ll never know if we would have scored if we shipped it wide quickly, but given the siege the home side had repelled about ten minutes earlier it really did seem to be a good time to test them on the wing.
Another question mark I’d like to raise is the selection of Felix Jones on the bench. Nothing against him as a player but in this Irish setup his introduction is not going to offer anything different...and as the Welsh proved, the number 23 jersey can be the key to breaking down the opposition defence - it was the only one to be credited with a try on the day. Though Jones himself has done little wrong in this Six Nations campaign, if we are to make any changes to the side to play Scotland I really do think Joe has to think about someone like Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls for that position on the bench, particularly as we'll need to go for points for the entire 80 minutes.
But let’s get a little glass half full for a moment, because it wasn’t all bad on our side of things. The defence was still solid bar one error for the Scott Williams try, and for this reason I certainly wouldn’t go messing with the Henshaw/Payne axis at centre just yet whatever George Hook might say on the matter. And when the likes of Henderson, Cronin and particularly Reddan were introduced, it seemed to give us a spark going forward we badly needed.
And in the wider context of RWC2015, this was a timely wakeup call. The win streak was all well and good but having that bubble burst most certainly isn’t the worst thing that could have happened to us. If we go on to do better in the autumn than the Welsh we could well be thanking Warren Gatland ;-)
Seriously though...throughout the Joe Schmidt era with the exception of our first real test against the Wallabies, while we have lost other matches we haven’t been put in a situation where we have to chase an early deficit before. Now that we know what it feels like, hopefully we can be ready in case it should happen again, and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t at some stage at the World Cup.
Focusing more on the here and now, however, while sadly the Grand Slam is off and the Triple Crown shield needs to be packed away for another year, the Championship trophy is still very much up for grabs. It's all down to points difference now and we'll all no doubt be fumbling at our calculators between kickoff in Rome and full time at Twickers next weekend.
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Friday, March 20
Scotland U20 v Ireland U20, Galashiels, 7:30pm
Saturday, March 21
Italy v Wales, Stadio Olimpico, 12:30pm
Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield, 2:30pm
England v France, Twickenham, 5pm
Sunday, March 22
Scotland Women v Ireland Women, Broadwood, 1pm