A lot of comparisons have been drawn between Ireland’s capitulation against Wales on Friday night and their lethargic underperformance on the opening day of the tournament in Murrayfield. While they lost both games for similar reasons, it would be remiss not to mention that each of those Tests unfolded differently. Ireland started slowly against Scotland and then grew into the contest, whereas in Cardiff, they controlled the opening exchanges, only to let momentum slip from their grasp due to a mix of injuries to key players, and more importantly, their own mistakes, and it was the second time this Championship that Ireland displayed the maddening inconsistency that has plagued them for years.
Swings and Roundabouts
Two weeks ago, I made the point that Ireland had every chance of beating Wales if Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton stayed injury-free. Between the former’s arm problem and the latter’s HIA assessment and yellow card, Ireland were limited to 22 minutes where both of their starting half-backs were on the field and fully-fit, and it severely hampered their ability to exert control on proceedings.
After the first quarter going as well as they could have hoped, the disruptions at 9 and 10 meant that a difficult middle 40 was in store for Ireland. Uncharacteristic handling errors handed the initiative back to Wales, but Ireland battled valiantly to get back into the game following George North’s second try. However, after failing to score when Rory Best’s maul try was correctly ruled out, they cracked badly under pressure in the closing stages; once they started producing moments of desperation like these, you knew the wheels were coming off:
The inexperience of Ireland’s back-up scrum-halves has long been viewed as a disaster in the making. When Murray departed so early, Ireland’s chances of winning looked close to evaporating. Contrary to expectations, though, Kieran Marmion did more than survive at Test level. In fact, there was an increase in the speed of ruck ball in the second half when Ireland got on the front foot, but Marmion seemed reluctant to snipe when the space was there, instead acting as a conduit between the base of the ruck and the next receiver. Maybe he didn’t want to be isolated and give away a penalty for holding on; if those gaps were presented to him at club level, he would have ghosted through, and Murray certainly wouldn’t have hesitated in exploiting them. Although it was a decent performance, it was nowhere near the same level as what Murray is capable of at his peak.
“Oh, Agent Starling, You Think You Can Dissect Me With This Blunt Little Tool?”
Ireland’s attack has come under scrutiny this week, with many identifying Joe Schmidt’s selections and tactics as the root causes of a perceived lack of incision against Wales. The Ireland head coach was quick to point out that Ireland had the same number of line breaks as their counterparts, but there was a marked difference in how the teams created space and took their chances.
Both sides blitzed all game, resulting in several handling errors throughout. Ireland’s over-use of one-out forward carries was made look all the worse by Wales getting up quickly and smashing the ball carrier backwards well behind the gain line. Ireland’s usual go-to men struggled to make yards after contact. Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip were largely ineffective with ball in hand, with CJ Stander the only Irish forward to make good inroads:
Even when Ireland strung multiple phases together with decent go-forward ball, they were unable to convert pressure into points because of handling errors at the final phase.
When Ireland did move the ball beyond first-receiver, the Welsh defence also troubled them out wide. Robbie Henshaw made yards up the middle, and Garry Ringrose was evasive the few occasions he did get the ball, but whenever Ireland manufactured space in the five-metre channel, it was wasted by lateral running and floating passes (forced by the hard press from the Welsh midfield) that made Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney check their runs:
Wales, on the other hand, ran hard and straight, and were able to pass the ball under little pressure at times due to narrow alignment and poor last-man tackling from Ireland:
An important factor in Ireland’s attack not functioning at optimum efficiency was the quality of the competition on the ground from the Welsh flankers. There was a sharp contrast between the back rows that each team fielded. Ireland opted for two ball carriers whereas Wales chose two scavengers, and the home side developed an edge at the breakdown as a result. These shortcomings, along with Conor Murray playing with one arm for 15 minutes of the game, left Ireland with no option but to launch garryowens through Sexton more than once because they weren’t making any yards with ball in hand.
Outside of phase play, Ireland had chances to cross the whitewash using their maul, and in an eerily similar pattern to two years ago, their lineout misfired every time they got a platform close to the Welsh try line:
Ireland’s lineout problems don’t bode well ahead of England’s visit to the Aviva Stadium, because with three locks in their starting pack, Eddie Jones’ side are going to do everything in their power to suffocate Ireland out of touch.
The Arrival of the Red Rose
There are changes that Joe Schmidt could make for this weekend’s clash that would actually strengthen Ireland, not just to ‘freshen things up’. Ireland have the luxury of an international standard alternative at 6, and given CJ Stander’s workload, it might be the right time to bring Peter O’Mahony into the starting XV. O’Mahony would bolster Ireland’s lineout and improve their breakdown work, an area where they could have an advantage over Eddie Jones’ side.
The back row that England are using at the moment is the most unbalanced loose forward unit that they have fielded since Stuart Lancaster selected Courtney Lawes on the blind side against France back in 2013. Maro Itoje is a world class lock, but wasted as a flanker, Nathan Hughes is a below average international, Billy Vunipola is short of match fitness and not much of a groundhog to begin with, and none of Tom Wood, Jack Clifford, or James Haskell are suited to playing 7.
Cian Healy may be a better choice to start at loosehead for Ireland, as Jack McGrath looks to be fatigued from the amount of minutes he has played this season, and Healy’s dynamism would add impetus. Niall Scannell could come in for Rory Best as he is a better lineout thrower than the Ireland captain, but it would be a bold call, and the pressure that England can apply to his darts would be far greater than what he experienced in Rome.
Even if Ireland go out on Saturday and deny England a Grand Slam (with or without changes), this tournament can’t be seen as anything other than a missed opportunity by the players and management. And you have to wonder, if a miracle worker like Schmidt can’t correct Ireland’s inconsistency, is it ever going to change?