Monday, February 10, 2020

IRELAND-24 WALES-14



Hadleigh Parkes caught Johnny Sexton's kickoff, and after his forwards set things up with a couple of phases around the 22, Tomos Williams launched an exit box kick into the Dublin sky.

It went a bit too long, and nobody in a red jersey would have been happy to see it land in the arms of Jordan Larmour at halfway, although on this occasion the fullback wasn't to step his way to a huge gain since he was met full on by Alun  Wyn Jones, who made the first of his match-leading 25 tackles.

So there we were, a shade into Welsh territory with our first bout of possession.  One of the biggest talking points among Irish fans ahead of the Andy Farrell era was that he, Mike Catt & Sexton needed to do something about our predictability with the ball.  And in this situation, we'd have been expected to settle into a few phases with one-off runners before sending up a high kick of our own, especially with Conor Murray wearing 9.  Well that is not what happened at all.

As Murray sped to the breakdown, he had no forwards around him.  Instead his skipper Sexton was ready to receive a pass, and it had to be a long one.  He found his fellow full back with ease, and with Josh van der Flier running a blocking line, the long passes continued through Robbie Henshaw until eventually Jacob Stockdale found himself in brilliantly-created space out on the left wing. 

This time we did what expected as the Ulsterman chipped one into the corner where it sat up perfectly for us right at the Welsh line, forcing Dan Biggar to take it with his back to a host of onrushing Irishmen - Murray, Sexton, Henshaw & van der Flier to be precise, none of whom were done with this sequence yet, and their pressure gave us a 5m scrum before there was even a minute on the clock.

Sure, nothing came of the set-piece as we were pinged for not driving straight.  And sure, this wasn't the last attacking situation in which we worked our way into the 22 only to come away with nothing.  But the significance of that opening Irish attack cannot be ignored.  

We wanted something fresh from the boys in green.  We wanted some indication that the new leadership group had a plan to bring the team forward.  We wanted evidence of an upward curve in performance after a fortuitous enough victory over Scotland the previous week.  Not only did we get all of the above, we did it with four tries, a feat which I very much doubt was included in any Irish fans' demands and thus was a bonus in every sense of the word.

It's not like the high kicks disappeared completely from our arsenal, just that they were used more sparingly and this new blend of width and speed to our passing kept the Welsh guessing and got the ball into areas where we could make the most of space free of forwards.  Unfortunately the biggest problem we had in the opening exchanges was that we weren't turning our advantages into points.

After winning that scrum penalty, on our next possession we went from right to left again to find room for Stockdale, only this time we set up some phases before Sexton put a high crossfield bomb into their 22 - Conway almost batted it back but it fell into grateful Welsh hands.  Then our skipper tried a little dink over the top but Tipuric tidied despite a suspected knock on.  THEN we were doing well until prop Wyn Jones jackled a penalty.  THEN as Murray was about to take the ball from a maul in their 22 he opted to leave it in there as it was moving toward the try line only for it to become effectively a choke tackle allowing them to clear from the scrum.

We hoped as fans that what was making us more and more frustrated would only make the boys in green more and more determined, and sure enough, we eventually got over the line.

From this lineout we settled into a series of 8 phases under the posts which probably would have led to at least another 8 more up to late 2019.  But on phase 9 Murray fired a perfect long pass into the arms of Larmour who went on to show he's not just all about stepping around people in a phone box.  

Having barged past Tomkins' (very high) effort at a tackle he proceeded to elude three more red jerseys before getting it down and brilliantly giving us the lead we deserved.  Sexton won't want to be reminded of first attempt to conquer Storm Ciara so I'll move on by saying we were happy enough to be 5-0 up.

Up to this point, Wayne Pivac's men had only had one bout of decent possession.  They were also trying something different with the ball but rather than our long passes they opted for quick offloading in the tackle.  In the midst of their first series in our 22 they had it nicked by Bundee Aki but their second was fruitful enough to give them a surprise lead on the day.

The chance came from pretty much nowhere - yet another Irish attack had been thwarted, this time due to a bind in a rolling maul being broken allowing them to clear to halfway.  After a few phases around the halfway line, AWJ managed an offload in the tackle to Biggar which put him into space and with his scrum half Tomos Williams in support he was able to coast over the line.

At the time I thought the final pass was worth a look, and the TMO agreed yet couldn't see anything.  And I have to admit that when I saw Sexton approaching referee Romain Poite asking him to also look at the AWJ offload, I thought it was unnecessary, until I eventually did see a replay.  Wouldn't have hurt to see a few more angles, but one thing is for sure - Andy Howell's assertion for WalesOnline that this was the best try of the match was way too red-goggled as you don't need green ones to award that to Larmour.

Before going back to the match, a word on Sexton's dealings with Monsieur Poite.  I thought he did extremely well as it happens.  There was some grumbling from Irish twitterati throughout the match but I doubt our captain could do anything right in the eyes of that minority.  The reality was that even when his queries involved forward play his arguments were made forcefully yet respectfully and while I don't think the officiating was as bad as the previous week,  it was definitely worth challenging again this time around.

But confronting the referee wasn't the only thing Sexton needed to do after that Welsh try - he also had to refocus his charges under the posts and our response showed it worked a treat.  On our next possession we found more long accurate passes to the wide channel only this time it was in Andrew Conway's direction and although his kick into the 22 gave Wales the set piece, Tomos Williams fluffed his lines when he spilled the "one off the top" from his skipper giving us another 5m attacking scrum.

"Must score here", I tweeted

This time we were the ones winning a penalty at the scrum but we weren't going to take it until we had a "free go" at the line first.  Phase after phase followed until Tadhg Furlong crashed over; O'Mahony and Herring were latching on making it a multi-provincial effort, but the Tight Heads Union spokesman suggested they weren't needed and I ain't arguing with those guys!!!

"Did score there", I tweeted, and with Sexton finding his kicking boots to add the extras, we were back in front.

Things might not have gone absolutely perfectly for us from that moment on, but one thing was for sure, we were comfortable.  Obviously on first watch I wasn't happy with just a 5-point lead at the break but watching it again, the reigning Grand Slam champions barely laid a glove on us bar one mini purple patch.  I went from having craved any kind of victory at kickoff to totally expecting a bonus point try come the final quarter.

I've spent so much time harping on our new-look attack in this article I've forgotten to mention our defending.  CJ Stander won another PotM award (really don't understand all the eye-rolling over the change from 'man' to 'player' - get over it!!!) and was even more productive with his poaching than the previous week.  But his fellow starting back rowers do deserve very honourable mentions.

O'Mahony is back to his best when it comes to finding key plays exactly when we need them.  After Sexton kept the pressure on the Welsh with another grubber to touch in their 22, it was the Munster skipper who snatched their dart away as though it were meant for him (against AWJ no less).  From there we were able to punch closer and closer to their line, winning another penalty along the way.

With a simple throw to James Ryan at 2 for which he didn't even have to jump, his fellow forwards amassed around him and the ensuing shove resembled one of those classic Warren Gatland-led Welsh 15-man mauls before we got over the line.

Though the bodies strewn around him couldn't confirm Josh van der Flier's grounding even with the TMO, Poite's original awarding of the score meant it stood.  That perfectly epitomised the openside's overall game; you can't always see what he does but you still know he's getting the job done and this was just reward for another impressive outing.

Next came that purple patch for the visitors.  First a seatbelt tackle by Henderson then some Stander jackling that was somehow deemed illegal put them into our 22.  From there our defending jarred the ball loose and O'Mahony tried to pounce but he knocked it on setting up attacking scrum.

After a few phases where they threw the kitchen sink at us, Hadleigh Parkes crashed his way over the line.  Back in the "old days", the 5 points would have been awarded without question, but the slow motion replays clearly shows him losing it at the last second.  Much more unfortunate than Hogg's slip seven days earlier, but still just as costly as it turned out.

Murray cleared from the scrum yet they came right back at us, and over the course of the next sets of phases Stander was pinged another couple of times - whether the calls were just or not, ("Can I just say one thing?" Sexton implored of Poite) how he wasn't carded at that stage I'll never know.

For those short range central penalties they had no choice but to opt for scrums and I thought they were extremely unadventurous.  Despite having so many ball carriers available like Faletau, they didn't come close to creating another try-scoring chance and eventually after a few resets that tempted Poite over to our loose head side, Dillon Lewis lost his footing giving us a penalty that felt like seven points on the scoreboard.

But the actual fourth try was yet to be secured and much like those before it, we got there by persisting after a few goes fell short.  As Wales tried to escape from their own 22, George North dropped a pass leaving me more surprised that he was on the pitch than I was at the error (note - Poite's original call was "backwards" yet he got corrected by his AR; that could turn out to be very significant in the overall championship given what happened next).

From the scrum, despite having a different halfback pairing of Cooney and Byrne on the pitch, the quick, long accurate passing continued with Larmour's final one being key as it put through Andrew Conway, who has surely cemented a starting role for himself in these two matches, for the bonus point score.

I'm not sure the Welsh got much consolation from CJ Stander seeing yellow in the 78th minute, nor from the last-gasp Tipuric try which was very similar in nature to that from JVDF earlier.  All in all it wasn't their best outing although on another day we may not have taken a maximum haul.

So that was that.  Going into this championship, 9 points from rounds 1 and 2 would have been a realistic expectation for Ireland, but I doubt anyone would have thought the 5 would come against Wales.  Nothing will come easily at Twickenham in two weeks for the Triple Crown decider, though the way the table looks now means we certainly should not be lacking in confidence.

But as I said earlier, my satisfaction does not merely come from the result.  While the relatively conservative approach under Joe Schmidt did bring much success for Ireland in recent years, the time was ripe for a change and while there is clearly room from improvement, I have to say I was very impressed with the new style and look forward to seeing where it can take us.

What's that?  You think I'm somehow referencing the general election as well?  I have no idea what you're talking about.  😜 JLP


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