There are strong parallels between the current Welsh side and the Ireland team that stuttered from loss to loss during the latter stages of Declan Kidney’s tenure: they’ve run out of ideas and there’s a pervading sense of lethargy to their performances, but they’re capable of pulling the occasional good game out of a hat. The loss of Warren Gatland to Lions duty has been a bigger hindrance than expected, and notwithstanding the fact that he’s an attack-minded coach, Rob Howley isn’t a fresh voice.
That doesn’t mean they’re not a quality side who can be lethal when they turn up to play; Ireland have struggled to beat them in the last few years, and Cardiff is a tough place to go for any team. Wales had no issues ramping up their intensity levels against England, and were competitive for the majority of the contest. Ireland have their work cut out for them this Friday, because contrary to the bookies’ odds, they are not favourites to win this fixture.
Experience is What You Get When You Don’t Get What You Want
No more than two years ago, Ireland went to Cardiff with aspirations of winning silverware, and were taught harsh lessons by a fired-up Welsh side whose tactics ruthlessly exposed the limitations of the game plan that they were using at the time. Ireland lost mainly because they came off second-best at the breakdown by a country mile, giving Leigh Halfpenny severable kickable shots at goal early in the game, and allowing Wales to build up a head start that proved to be insurmountable. The inability to generate quick ruck ball, coupled with a faltering lineout, meant that Ireland struggled to create point-scoring opportunities in the first half.
It would be worth Ireland’s while to review that loss again, as Rob Howley’s side could well have an edge in that area with two opensides in their starting XV; Scotland already caused Ireland problems on the floor and Wales have better scavengers at their disposal in the shape of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. Both players started last year’s fixture between these teams, but Ireland kept them quiet with quick, highly organised, aggressive clearing out. This time round, the Welsh flankers are in much better form and are likely to exert greater influence:
Discipline and efficiency on the ground are going to be key for Ireland; while Halfpenny’s radar malfunctioned in Murrayfield, he’s too professional to let that happen again. Ireland got away with giving France a fast start, and they almost did the same against Scotland, but there’s less chance of them recovering if Wales get the upper hand early on. Although their last two games slipped away from them, they seem to be more resilient when there are green jerseys in front of them.
Changing of the Guard
The Welsh management have made personnel changes recently, more out of necessity than forward thinking. Injury and time have taken their toll on Jamie Roberts, and Rhys Priestland’s form has made him a liability at Test level. Wales are still spending inordinate amounts of time trying to grind teams down by going up through the middle of them, but the introduction of Scott Williams and Sam Davies into their matchday squads has seen them get the ball into the five-metre channel at least a few times a game due to those players’ natural instincts, and there is potential for them to really cause Ireland trouble out wide:
Scotland got around the outside edge of Ireland’s defence with relative ease and cut them open near the touch line. Even though their line speed and intensity in the tackle improved against Italy and France, they are narrow in their alignment. Andy Farrell has been reluctant to acknowledge this narrowness as a flaw in Ireland’s defensive system, but spreading defenders more evenly across the pitch may be a necessary tweak.
Wales’ new faces have added dimensions to their team’s back play. Scott Williams has excellent pace and footwork and an eye for a gap. He can carry out the role of a second ball-player, and has been used to offer his team the option of a second line of attack for Wales, compared to the direct, hard-running of Jamie Roberts. He’s not going to skittle tacklers the way Roberts did in his prime, but he asks more questions of defences than the Harlequins centre, and his partnership with Jonathan Davies at club level gives fluency to Wales’ wide movements.
Sam Davies, too, is a talented footballer, and attracts plenty of defenders because of his ability to play flat to the gain line, ghost through gaps and put those around him into space. There’s a valid argument for Davies to start, despite the many qualities that Dan Biggar possesses, but for the moment, the Welsh coaching ticket seem to think he’s better suited to coming off the bench when the game is breaking up and legs are tiring.
Changes in the pack have also provided Wales with other means of testing opposition defences. Ross Moriarty gives them a dynamic ball carrier in the back row that they haven’t had since Dan Lydiate took ownership of the 6 jersey at RWC 2011, Tomas Francis takes some amount of stopping, and Justin Tipuric is tailor-made for the link man role, popping up to keep attacking movements alive when they look close to dying out.
Slaying the Dragon
A big factor in Wales not dominating this tournament anymore is that the famed Shaun Edwards blitz defence isn’t the force of old. That may have something to do with every team in the tournament adopting a hard-up style of defending, or maybe it’s the absence of Jamie Robert’s physicality in the midfield due to the above-mentioned changes in the back line, but their opponents seem to be finding space where there didn’t used to be any:
Jonathan Davies has shown himself to be a poor decision-maker under intense pressure, and teams have gotten change out of him and Alex Cuthbert by putting decoy runners in front of them. Cuthbert isn’t a regular starter these days, but Davies’ habits of biting in on the decoy and getting caught flat-footed are ever-present:
Apart from the blown chances against Scotland, Ireland’s back line has functioned quite well, with Garry Ringrose, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls being elusive, even in difficult conditions. Robbie Henshaw isn’t going to get as much change out of the Welsh defence by crashing it up the 10 channel each time he gets the ball, as Dan Biggar is one of the best tackling out-halves at international level. He may be better served by going for the outside break, much like he used to do for Connacht.
Ireland do have the players to get around Wales if they can get the ball past outside centre, and Liam Williams’ inclination towards giving away penalties for cheap shots when his team are on the rack could be a source of points. George North’s injury proneness could put Wales in a bind, as if he is forced to leave the field, Jamie Roberts or Scott Williams could have to play on the wing, thereby disrupting their defensive setup.
One area where Wales have found to be particularly vulnerable is the maul. They’re not great at using it themselves, mostly due to being too upright in their body positioning, and they’ve struggled to defend it since it became a popular tactic in 2014. After an impressive 50-odd minutes against England five weeks ago, their inability to repel the English drive cost them a much-needed win over a team who have had their number in the last few years, and Italy squeezed penalties out of them in this phase of play as well:
Ireland’s lineout maul has been their favoured attacking weapon since Joe Schmidt took charge, but Wales negated it almost completely two years ago, which had a lot to do with Alun Wyn Jones knowing Paul O’Connell inside-out. Having played with him on two Lions tours, and against him countless times at club and Test level, the Welsh captain had a better understanding of the Munster talisman than most.
Where lineout operators call the ball to depends on several different things: the scoreboard, the time, field position etc., and Jones knew how O’Connell read different situations, and that he was inclined towards calling the ball to himself in clutch moments, or when his team needed a boost. Ireland’s greatest lock’s biggest failing was that he put too much responsibility on his own shoulders, and that day in Cardiff, wherever Paul stood in the line, his opposite number was right alongside him, but he won’t be as familiar with Donnacha Ryan or Devin Toner.
Luke Charteris is also a formidable defensive lineout jumper, and the work done by Simon Easterby and his players over the last two weeks will determine the outcome of this game; how much Ireland can bring their maul advantage to bear will determine whether they win or lose. With the quality of Dan Biggar’s kick returns, lineouts in the Welsh half are going to be at a premium, so Ireland have to make them count.