Inaccurate lineout work and blown try-scoring chances have been recurring themes of Ireland’s recent games against Wales, with last year’s Test between the two a prime example. Although Ireland capitulated towards the end of that clash (one of the rare occasions they have done so under Joe Schmidt), they had plenty of opportunities to go ahead by a significant margin, and had they not made mistakes like this, a try bonus point was a realistic outcome:
All told, Ireland had 6 visits to the Welsh 22 in Cardiff that day without scoring a single try, and that won’t be adequate this weekend, as this Welsh side are incredibly resilient. There aren’t too many teams that are capable of clawing their way back against England in Twickenham after conceding two early tries, but Wales did exactly that, and were an incorrect TMO decision away from a famous win.
Gatland has made a commendable effort to get his team playing with more enterprise this season, on account of the territorial, crash-it-up-the-middle stuff being nowhere nearly as effective as it used to be. We saw this change in mindset when he was coaching the Lions in the summer and under his tutelage, Wales are playing a brand of rugby that mimics what the Scarlets are doing at the moment, which is based on the philosophy that everyone is a playmaker.
With Jamie Roberts in the winter of his career and Jonathan Davies out injured, Wales are without their superstar midfield pairing that dominated the Six Nations in 2012. Hadleigh Parkes is a rounded player, but more of a jack-of-all-trades type centre. His positioning, running lines and distribution are all up to the mark, with strength in contact being the one aspect of his game that stands out. At the same time, he’s not a world class midfielder and neither is Scott Williams, and this is part of the reason why the Welsh attacking style has become more holistic.
Before, they could throw the ball to any Roberts or Davies and let them burst through tackles at will; the make-up of their back line has changed since, not just in midfield, but in the back three with smaller, faster wingers like Steff Evans, and the same can be said for their pack.
Hardly anyone outside of Wales who would consider Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi or Ross Moriarty as being close to world class, yet they have all been competitive against more vaunted opponents. Shingler’s athleticism has been put to good use, with the Scarlets flanker causing opposition defences all sorts of trouble as a carrier in wider channels:
His defensive work rate isn’t at the same level as his predecessor, Dan Lydiate, but his pace and handling give Wales a dimension in attack that they didn’t have when the Ospreys tackling machine wore the 6 jersey. His back row colleague, Josh Navidi, has impressed as well, carrying his November form into this tournament. The Cardiff Blues openside has been influential on the ground, to the point that Wales don’t seem to miss Sam Warburton’s expertise in this facet of the game:
More importantly, the Welsh pack function as a collective that is greater than the sum of its individual parts, and from 1 to 23, Gatland’s side can all draw and pass and get the ball out of contact with ease.
George North has been brought into the matchday squad and despite the serious injuries he has suffered, he hasn’t lost his capacity for ripping defences to pieces, as Ireland found out the hard way 12 months ago. Liam Williams is back, too, and brings a wealth of Test caps to an otherwise new-look side, so their attack may be tweaked slightly to accommodate the physicality of these two players, but we’re still probably going to see more of the same high-tempo attack from Wales that they prospered with in Round 1, as opposed to a return of the one-out, ‘Warrenball’ attacking strategy from a couple of years ago.
Stopping Them At Source
Ireland have been narrow in their defensive alignment at times in this year’s Championship, and for whatever reason, their line speed off scrums is slow. These things will have to change because with the speed of the Welsh passing and their desire to keep the ball alive, Gatland’s side are able to transfer the ball across large distances quite quickly, and if Ireland don’t spread out a bit more, they will find themselves outstripped by the Welsh passing, with the likes of Steff Evans getting acres of space to run into:
Offloading rugby doesn’t work if the team with ball in hand aren’t winning the collisions up front, and this is the main reason for the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of Wales’ displays against Scotland and England. Gregor Townsend’s pack were second-best in the contact zone and Wales passed out of the tackle freely:
The English forwards were much more physical, and for the majority of the game, they denied Wales any sort of front foot ball with bruising hits on or behind the gain line:
Bad weather played a huge part in Wales’ loss to England, with the wet, blustery conditions hindering their passing, but the performances from their half-backs didn’t help, and this is one area of the field where being without first-choice players has cost Wales.
In the build-up to this tournament, a lot had been made in the media of Rhys Webb’s knee injury and how it has robbed Gatland of his starting scrum-half. In truth, Gareth Davies has arguably been the form 9 in Wales this season, tearing it up for the Scarlets in the Pro14 and in Europe, with an unmatched instinct for anticipating line breaks and running brilliant support lines to get on the end of try-scoring movements. He might not break around the fringes as effectively as Webb, but his decision-making and ability to identify space are attributes that any coach would want in their scrum-half.
The Welsh coaching ticket’s options are limited at 10, though. Rhys Priestland’s injury and Sam Davies’ poor form have left Wales threadbare in this position. Dan Biggar and Gareth Anscombe are in the matchday squad, and having one out-half in your side who is short of match fitness and another who oscillates between 10 and 15 is far from ideal. Biggar is an excellent player and an important cog in this Welsh team, but Ireland have rattled him before:
It may take time for him to get used to having that second or two less to make a decision, throw a pass or put in a kick at Test level again, and if that proves to be the case, Ireland will have ample opportunity to force errors from him. As unpalatable as Eddie Jones’ comments about Rhys Patchell were, he stayed true to his word, and his team piled pressure on the Scarlets pivot. Patchell’s high error count was a big factor in his side losing to England, and he has been dropped from the matchday squad altogether, but throwing in a rusty (albeit experienced) player in his place might produce similar results.
It’s difficult to know what type of game plan Ireland will attempt to execute this Saturday because finding a weak point in this Welsh side is challenging. Ireland have struggled to cross the whitewash against Wales lately, and their defence is as hungry as ever under Shaun Edwards. Playing ball-in-hand rugby would suit a Welsh side who like an unstructured game down to the ground, so keeping the ball in play would likely be of no benefit to Ireland.
The logical approach would be for Ireland to kick frequently in order to stop the game from breaking up. It would make sense, given that England got a good return from targeting Josh Adams via up-and-under’s in Twickenham, with the Sale winger’s positioning exposed without the presence of Leigh Halfpenny in the backfield. Halfpenny may be back in their starting line-up, but George North can be slow to turn when the ball is put in behind him:
The problem with trying to play a set-piece game is that Wales’ scrum is rock solid, and Ireland will have to cope without Tadhg Furlong. Andrew Porter was impressive against Italy, but he is in the fledgling stage of his career. Wales also have a knack for stealing lineout ball when Ireland get a foothold in their red zone:
The presence of Peter O’Mahony in Ireland’s starting XV should make a massive difference in this regard, because he gives his team the choice of throwing anywhere along the line. At 6’5”, Cory Hill is slightly undersized for a Test lock, so taking Wales on in the maul is worth a try, but then again, the Welsh pack are well-drilled under Robin McBryde and are better than most at stopping Ireland’s mauls before they generate momentum:
If Ireland are to win this game, Joe Schmidt will have to pull a rabbit out of the hat, because his team have been found wanting against Wales in his time in charge, and having them derail Irish Championship hopes three years in a row is something that no doubt rankles with the Ireland head coach. Using revenge as a motivating tool is never a smart idea, but the players and coaches must feel that it is high time that they put an end to the psychological advantage that Wales have developed over them.