The most pleasing aspect of Ireland’s win over Wales on Saturday was probably the fact that they outscored Wales on the try count, and in doing so, forced Warren Gatland to eat his words. It was a revenge mission 12 months in the making, and Ireland’s ruthlessness was epitomised in the final play of the game:
There’s an element of luck involved in going for an intercept, and even though Stockdale read the play easily and timed his run to perfection, it demonstrated a mean streak on Ireland’s part that was absolutely necessary to get a long-awaited win against a team who have gotten the upper hand on them for the last couple of years.
Ireland’s display was a handful of errors away from being a classic Joe Schmidt performance. After a first half of punching and counter-punching, they asserted themselves in the third quarter and should have been out of sight by the 50-minute mark. Wales, though, were competitive to the death, but they squandered a number of chances in that second half due to basic handling errors. Every time a player in red dropped a ball, the volume from the crowd rose and you got the feeling that it was going to be Ireland’s day.
Picking The Lock
Ireland’s attacking strategy in this game was based on the simple premise that they were going to carry directly into and through Welsh defenders. It’s something they have attempted to do with little success in their recent encounters with Wales, but there was a bloody-mindedness to Ireland’s forward carries that Wales couldn’t live with for the 80 minutes. Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, James Ryan and CJ Stander were the go-to players in this area, and they were unrelenting in their determination to make yards after contact:
Ireland got more change out of Wales in the maul than they have done lately, but there was more than just bludgeon to their attacking play. Although Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell were brutally effective in contact (Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams will be having nightmares about Farrell in particular for weeks), Ireland used some intricate moves that exposed chinks in the armour of the revered Shaun Edwards blitz:
The first line break above was the result of a move that was obviously pre-planned, but the second was a combination of well-executed decoy runs, incisive running lines and top-drawer handling. Ireland had trouble with the timing of players coming on to the ball in their more complex back line movements against France and Italy, but on the basis of how smoothly these plays went against Wales, this crease seems to have been ironed out.
In spite of Johnny Sexton’s uncharacteristic missed kicks at goal, his distribution was sublime. The laser-accurate pass for Jacob Stockdale’s first try out of the top drawer, but his distribution was of a high standard throughout. He will be no doubt fuming with the profligacy from the tee, but he and his team can take satisfaction from scoring five tries against one of the better defensive sides in this part of the world, especially after all of the criticism that this facet of their game has taken since the start of the tournament.
Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention
There was a sharp in contrast between the teams’ attacking styles. Wales were extremely clinical with the sparse opportunities they got, scoring relatively quickly after they got hold of the ball, whereas Ireland put the Welsh defence through its paces over the course of multiple phases. A tactic that enabled Ireland to hold on to the ball for long periods was their use of inside passes when Wales blitzed up hard on the outside edge:
In their previous meeting, aggressive line speed from Wales disrupted Ireland’s attack when they tried to go wide, and it was negated expertly this time round using the inside ball. The inside runner always being an option means it wasn’t improvised, but the decision-making from Sexton around when to pass back infield so as not to let the Welsh defence smash an Irish carrier man and ball was first-rate.
In the above examples, you can see Ireland’s talisman assessing how far the Welsh midfield have rushed up before changing the direction of the attack, and as superb as the execution was, it’s a ploy that was likely borne out of extensive analysis from Ireland’s coaching ticket, as well as a willingness to acknowledge past failings and learn from them.
Rolling With The Punches
Last year, Jason Brennan did an excellent article on the use of mental skills in New Zealand rugby. One method that was examined was a mental resilience technique whereby someone calls ‘next five’ whenever play is about to resume following an error. The idea behind it is that instead of reacting negatively after a player slips up, the team as a collective focus on their next immediate task.
While they didn’t use that exact technique on Saturday, Ireland did rebound instantly when a mistake occurred, showing impressive flexibility to recover from unexpected circumstances:
Both of these moments led to Irish tries, and epitomised how the home side were that bit sharper on the day. All tournaments will have at least game one where things don’t go to plan, but successful teams have the ability to adapt and overcome. There will be plenty of twists and turns when Gregor Townsend’s high-flying Scotland turn up to the Aviva next Saturday, and Ireland will have to react swiftly until the last whistle again, regardless of what kind of a lead they may build.
The Weight Of Expectation
As much as Schmidt might not like to hear it, there is no avoiding the growing sense of optimism that Ireland have a gilt-edged chance to win a Grand Slam. They have two very difficult games left to play against a resurgent Scotland and a wounded England, and both of those sides are dangerous enough to beat Ireland if they are even slightly off the pace. However, there is only one unbeaten team left in this Championship, and it’s up to them now to shoulder the expectations of a nation.
After two rounds where they looked off their November form, Ireland are back to being close to their best, and they will be able to welcome Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson and Garry Ringrose back into their squad for their next Test. The players who have stepped up in the absence of those three performed so well that they can now be considered genuine challengers to start big games in the future, and between having momentum and a near-full deck to choose from (injuries at 13 aside), Ireland are primed for a Grand Slam tilt.