Once the full-time whistle blew I was all “oh, great...social media will be awash with sister-kissing references”, which of course it was. A particular legacy to rugby I’m pretty sure Declan Kidney never intended to leave behind!l
Draws happen rarely in rugby union (bookies generally offer around 20/1) and they tend to leave everyone feeling rather flat but they do offer one silver lining, at least to those of us who wish to harp on rugby. Pretty much anyone who offered an opinion before the match can find enough in this 80 minutes to believe their predictions were vindicated.
I mean - generally the fans of each team see the action their own way whatever the result (like the way many Welsh fans were “shocked” that Jamie Roberts didn’t get man of the match - more on that later) but what I’m talking about here are the attitudes within the Irish fan base.
The heavy defeat to Argentina was shocking to all of us, and as a school rugby coach I had way back in the day used to say ad nauseum, “You’re only as good as your last match”. So I suppose the scepticism over Ireland’s chances going into this one were understandable to a degree.
But only to a degree. Some seemed to figure the only factors to be considered were that the Welsh were all 7 feet & over 20 stone and thus would make light work of our backline, half of which were playing totally out of position.
And I could be wrong but there seems to be an undercurrent to that opinion, one working on the premise “Joe Schmidt is NOT the messiah and I will use any evidence I can find to prove it, while ignoring any evidence that doesn’t”. If so, that’s a shame.
I have always pushed the #TrustJoe hashtag here on the site, but then again I have never suggested that he is any kind of messiah of Irish rugby. The reason I ask for trust is that I can see what he is trying to do with this Irish team. Does it mean I necessarily agree with it? Maybe not. But have I won a bucketload of top tier rugby trophies since I came to Ireland? No. And I’ve been here a whole lot longer than Joe has!
When it comes to this match I was intrigued with what he had to say in an interview with RTÉ’s Michael Corcoran during the week, which aired shortly before kickoff :
“We’re just going out to try and win the first half against Wales, and then we’ll try and put together a decent second half that’ll keep us in front or if we need to come from behind and catch those points up that we have a good strategy to do so.”
For me that is a fascinating insight to how he approaches matches like this, particularly when you see how it panned out. You cannot look at that first half and say Ireland weren’t playing like a team that planned to win it.
On the very first decent possession, while our scrum did look a tad shaky we retained the ball and ran through a whopping 19 phases making steady progress each time until we won a penalty in the Welsh 22. Sexton converts, 3-0.
Then it’s the turn of the visitors to show what they could do - late replacement (who probably would have started anyway if he had more game time) Liam Williams put up a high ball which Dan Biggar retrieved outside our 22. They then hopped on the phase train themselves, racking up 17 before Gareth Davies gets mixed up and the ball is recovered by Devin Toner.
Next possession and this time Simon Zebo puts a little grubber through into the Welsh 22 and when we eventually get the ball back, this time we go 15 phases before winning another kickable penalty, one which Sexton also puts between the sticks, 6-0.
As that kick goes over, Dan Biggar has his foot heavily strapped. There were no yellow cards on the day but I think his not going off was almost as good as a sinbinning for the Welsh. He clearly wasn’t right yet he stayed on for 8 minutes and even attempted a placekick, which was proven to be the wrong option.
Then after repelling another double-digit phase assault on our line we see Tommy O’Donnell hacking the ball upfield and the support from his team-mates was excellent...Wales recovered briefly but a strong tackle from Sexton turned it back over and shortly after Robbie Henshaw played a crossfield/territory kick pinning them deep back in their 22.
Enter Devin Toner. Some wonder why he isn’t able to block every box kick. Why indeed. One thing’s for sure - grabbing him around the middle of his torso while ducking your head isn’t going to stop him and unfortunately for Wales that’s what (the subdued I thought) Alun-Wyn Jones did; Toner was able to easily get his hands in the path of the clearance.
A few phases later, we thought we had a try when CJ Stander crashed over, but there were too many Welsh arses in the way for the TMO to see what probably was a grounding. Moments later, however, the debutante’s Munster team-mate Conor Murray spotted a premature lean by Justin Tipuric to throw a sweet dummy and dart over the line. Sexton adds the two, 13-0.
Nigh on 30 minutes of laser-focused rugby from Joe Schmidt’s men. And ironically we pretty much hit the Welsh with the same kind of early lead they put on us in last year’s Six Nations.
But even the most optimistic Irish supporter knew that the Welsh were well able to claw that advantage back. And what we definitely did not need was to leave the door open for them in any way.
Green goggles or no, you have to feel sorry for Keith Earls, even before his removal for suspected concussion. The tip-tackle laws are in place for a reason, and it’s a very good one, ie safety. The problem is, when you go into a tackle with intensity and find yourself having lifted the player off the ground, it is bound to have a serious affect on your decision-making process.
Ah feck. I have him in the air! What do I do? Continue holding him? If I’m not careful bringing him down that’s a spear. Maybe I should let him go? No that’s not fulfilling your duty of care. Oh wait...looks like I let him go anyway….think the officials noticed?
Of course I have no idea what went through Keith’s mind as he tackled Liam Williams. I do know that the Welshman’s prone status afterwards is what had the ref stop the play and look at the TMO. Thankfully for us, he saw it as only a penalty. Sam Warburton didn’t quite agree. Given his history I suppose he wouldn’t. But anyway the 3 points crucially put his side on the board.
A few minutes later it was the visitors’ turn to resort to the little grubber through - this time it was Jonathan Davies putting one up the touchline and it was perfectly weighted to create maximum awkwardness for Andrew Trimble.
OK here’s where I talk about Simon Zebo. I’m not half as opposed to his selection as many seem to be. But I do think he has limits in the full-back position, and here was where one was found out. Trimble needed someone to be at the dead ball line for him to scoop the ball to but instead Zebo did, well, pretty much nothing. A combination of this plus the kick accuracy meant the Welsh had a massive attacking opportunity in a 5m scrum.
Here is where possibly the Welsh really could have seen us have a man in the bin. We were 5 for 5 on our own scrums but still our opposition’s timing and shoving on their ball was much much better and luckily Garces appeared keen to keep 30 men on park. Still, number 8 Faletau showed great strength and awareness after being tackled at the try line to get the ball down and suddenly it’s only a 3-point game.
But Joe did have his half-time lead. Seemingly now it was up to him and his coaching staff to work out how to bring it home.
However it was to be the Welsh who were to get the first decent possession in the second half; this time the phase count got to 14 before Priestland dropped into the pocket and tried a drop goal to no avail. Bizarrely Earls was very close to another tip-tackle in this sequence.
Then it’s back to the grubber again and this time Davies sees his glance off the boot of Jared Payne so when it goes into our 22 and over the touchline, the resulting lineout is to the attacking team...another massive chance to draw level.
Continuously resorting to grubbers, crossfield kicks and drop goal attempts is basically an admission that the opposition defence has the better of you. And in this area the margins were so tight that any tiny mistake would be costly. Like I said earler, Tipuric’s body position gave Murray the space for his try.
Unfortunately at this point it was Ireland’s new skipper Rory Best at fault. Can’t be easy to hear the ref shouting at you to stay away from the ball, and it wouldn’t have hurt Garces to be more precise calling “green 2” but the fact remains his call was ignored and a penalty was given which meant the 13-0 lead was wiped out completely.
When we had the ball in the second half we were making progress before little things went wrong. Knockon here, ball lost in the tackle there, ball thrown behind the support runner another time. We had a way forward, we just lacked that final 5% to bring it to the line. Even a sensational pass on the run from Sexton to Trimble may not have been the right option as he had a good line from Zebo on his shoulder. But the Welsh weren’t finding things plain sailing either, like when their own hooker Scott Baldwin made a basic error of his own in dropping a simple pass.
But we were to have yet another strong parallel sequence to our defeat at the Millennium Stadium last season. Then the Welsh were heralded for a massive defensive hold out on their own try line. Ours this time around was more impressive in ways because for 28 phases we pretty much tackled around our own 22 as if it was the try line and Gatland’s men were getting nowhere.
Unfortunately having eventually forced the turnover, rather than put the ball into the space behind the Welsh in transition, we tried instead to go straight back to the ground game. With the play still broken a tussle between Warburton and Toner saw them both fall into Jack McGrath who was acting scrumhalf at the time and the ball went back to the Welsh side before we were pinged for not rolling away.
It was a terribly harsh outcome for an heroic defensive stand, and Priestland did extremely well to convert the pen and put his side ahead.
Sidenote - it would be great if our former defensive coach could put his name to the maul technique he helped pioneer though I dare say most commentators would be reluctant to use the phrase “Kiss tackle”! Whatever you call it, Garces was going out of his way to ignore our attempts at it, at least until the very end when he was keen to award anything but a penalty.
Anyway...despite falling behind for the first time we were to be given a reprieve as a poor box kick by Lloyd Williams after the restart caught his own team-mates off-side...this time, Garces wasn’t too shy to give us a chance for three to bring the scores level. Sexton was a bit the worse for wear after a challenge (not to the head this time) but somehow managed to get the ball over the posts - it sure didn’t look good off the boot.
But the parity was restored and I have to say fair play to the two sides for playing on after the clock went red. Some may say it’s foolhardy in that you might cough up a pen, but another way of looking at it is surely the opposition D has to spring a leak at some stage from pure exhaustion. They didn’t though, and the sell out crowd was pretty much stunned at the whistle.
Now - to man of the match. Many players did many great things. None were free of mistakes, even CJ Stander who got the award - he knocked on twice in the opposition 22 in the second half. Still, given it was his debut at this level he was definitely a worthy candidate for the way he slotted in to our setup and found himself so heavily involved in our building that lead.
Jamie Roberts? Another worthy candidate, though how anyone expects a home broadcaster to give the gong to the visitors in a drawn match is beyond me. Sexton himself was also outstanding, Murray’s footwork for the try was key, Jamie Heaslip was immense (though his critics will no doubt turn a blind eye yet again) and an early man-and-ball tackle by Andrew Trimble helped set the standards for our D.
But we simply cannot ignore the importance of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. Either could have easily played full-back, but even when denied both Rob Kearney and Felix Jones, Joe still went with Zebo to keep these two together.
And when so many criticise the decision it is clear that they assume that 12 and 13 are only on the pitch to create attacking opportunities. While naturally he wouldn’t mind more offensive output from them, it’s clear their focus is more on the defensive side of things.
In the statistical breakdown of this match, the teams are even in almost every category - Scrums, both 100%, Lineouts, both 8/9, Possession 49%v51%, Tackles, 156v154. But while Ireland had as many as seven linebreaks, Wales had none. Zip. Zilch. Ní raibh aon cheann. THIS Wales. With centres who may not have been monsters, but most certainly were Lions.
So to summarize...win the first half? Check. Justify the unusual centre pairing? Check. Change things enough to bring the win home? No. End result - Doom and gloom predictions? Proven wrong. But also...Grand Slam? Gone. Triple Crown? Gone. How about third title in a row?
With Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien hopefully to come back to play France, and having seen how they themselves got on against Italy, the conclusion I draw from this Irish display is that we’re very much in the race, though the Welsh with their schedule are probably still the favourites.
Apologies for harping on longer than usual, but this was an absolutely fascinating match to analyse - truth is I could’ve gone twice as long. JLP
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