In the long run, the outcome of this weekend’s fixture between Wales and Ireland isn’t the be-all and end-all for either team; with the World Cup on the horizon, there are bigger challenges ahead for both sides, but a win could be crucial for the victor. If Wales come away with a Grand Slam, they will go to Japan on a high in September, whereas if Ireland can deny them a clean sweep, it will copper-fasten the idea that their substandard performances in the first three rounds of this Championship were just a blip.
If Joe Schmidt’s side are to pull off an unlikely victory, the low energy levels and high error count that dogged them from Rounds 1 to 3 of this tournament have to be eradicated. Wales have turned the Principality Stadium into a fortress and if the crowd get on Ireland’s back from the off, it could be a long afternoon. Slow starts are a recurring theme for Ireland, and that can’t happen this weekend; Wales’ home ground is an intimidating venue for visitors, and trying to recover after a bad opening is a nightmare scenario.
Short Of The Mark
For the last few years, Warren Gatland has leaned towards selecting two openside flankers in his back row, which makes sense given the players he has at his disposal. Wales have an embarrassment of riches at 7, and that’s taking into account Sam Warburton’s premature retirement. Justin Tipuric is a two-time British and Irish Lion, Ellis Jenkins and Josh Navidi have shone for the Cardiff Blues lately and James Davies is an important player in a Scarlets team that have become a formidable outfit domestically and in Europe. Dan Lydiate is past his peak and Aaron Shingler has been found wanting at Test level, so picking two groundhogs allows Wales to get their most talented players on the field.
The other benefit of Wales having two fetchers on the pitch from the off is that it gives them a greater chance of slowing the opposition ball down to a crawl. They did this to Ireland as recently as 2017, and when it works, it’s frustrating to play against. There aren’t many teams who can score tries when playing with slow ruck ball, and the increase in the amount of breakdown penalties that comes with having two scavengers in the starting XV is extremely useful in terms of territory, possession and pressure-relieving turnovers.
The downside to not having an out-and-out 6 is that it leaves you short of a specialist lineout jumper. This is the strongest aspect of Shingler’s game, and without a traditional blindside, Wales have been caught out in the lineout in this tournament. It would help if one of the other loose forwards could compensate for this, but Ross Moriarty isn’t renowned for his speed in the air, and England, having recognised this, were highly competitive on the Welsh throw:
With Cory Hill out injured, Wales have chosen to start Adam Beard ahead of Jake Ball. The young Ospreys lock is familiar with Jones from playing with him at club level, and at 6’8″, he has the tools to be a fine international second rower, but he has less than 20 caps at Test level, and having James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony breathing down his neck at lineout time could induce a nervousness that often goes with inexperience.
However, Wales not having a lineout jumper in their back row is mitigated by the fact that Alun Wyn Jones is a canny lineout operator on both sides of the ball. The Welsh captain’s performance against England three weeks ago finally made the remaining doubters realise that he is fully-deserving of his place in the pantheon of second row greats.
Not unlike Paul O’Connell, Jones isn’t as gigantic or physically imposing as Brodie Retallick or Bakkies Botha, nor is he as naturally athletic or skillful as Sam Whitelock or Victor Matfield, but he makes up for this with a fierce intelligence and an unrivalled work rate. He has spoiled Ireland’s throws in prime attacking positions more than once in recent years, and he did the same thing to a vaunted English lineout in Round 3:
This is where Simon Easterby will earn his corn; Ireland need to use multiple dummy movements to drag Jones away from their intended target, and it’s up to their forwards coach to design lineout schemes that are complex enough to draw attention away from the receiver of the throw, but simple enough that they can be executed easily in high-pressure situations.
Going 12 Rounds
It’s not only Jones’ defensive lineout work that Ireland need to be concerned about; like all brilliant leaders, he has a galvanising effect on his players (not to mention being an accomplished wind-up merchant), and the impact and volume of his tackles are a significant factor in his team’s ability to hang in and win games when they should be well-beaten.
Under Gatland’s tutelage, Wales have developed an incredible mental resilience that seems to course through their squad, regardless of who is playing for them, and this is where Ireland have fallen down against them in years gone by. In Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton, Wales had two of the best defensive flankers in the world for about five years, and both of them got through a serious defensive shift whenever they played Ireland, putting in low, technically excellent hits with high intensity:
During the same period, Ireland tended to pick at least two out of Stephen Ferris, Seán O’Brien, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip (dynamic ball carriers who could make yards after contact against the sternest of defences) in the back row, and Lydiate and Warburton applied themselves manfully to repatedly chop them down at the ankles. They were the ideal players to combat Ireland’s direct-carrying game, and Wales usually came out on top when the two played one another.
Last year was the first time in a long time that Wales played a game against Ireland without Lydiate or Warburton, and as good as the current crop of Welsh flankers are, they don’t have the same kind of wrought-iron physicality in the close-quarters exchanges as their predecessors:
For whatever reason, though, this hasn’t been an issue for Wales this year; their forwards have been able to go to-to-toe with gargantuan packs for entire matches, defending stoically right into the final stages of games, at a time when other teams show signs of fatigue:
Ireland struggle to score tries when their opponent has the fitness and concentration to keep getting up off the deck and tackle their heavy carriers. Their variation in attack against Italy and France was impressive (especially in the red zone), and assuming that it’s a trend that is going to continue, they should be better-equipped to ask more questions of Wales defensively than in previous years.
One avenue that is worth exploring for Ireland with regards to finding space in the Welsh defence is the inability of their centres to turn quickly. Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies are similar in that they are both big men who do the basics well, but they are inclined to get caught flat-footed when the opposition send decoy runners at them. This is exactly what happened for Darcy Graham’s try in Murrayfield last Saturday:
They key to this movement is the line that Nick Grigg ran off Peter Horne’s shoulder; it caused Parkes and Davies to sit back on their heels, which in turn narrowed the rest of the Welsh defence and made them hesitate for half a second. This type of play puts the defending winger in an awkward position where they have to make a difficult decision as to whether or not to follow their midfield’s lead and rush infield (leaving space further out) or drift across and leave a dog-leg on their inside shoulder.
The thinking behind this pattern was the same as Ireland’s strike move for Johnny Sexton’s try against France on Sunday; except in that instance it was the cumbersome Mathieu Bastareaud who was taken advantage of. With Bundee Aki being used as a battering ram throughout this Championship by running the same sort of lines off Sexton’s shoulder as the one Grigg runs in the above example, Wales will be expecting him to do more of the same. Aki has the dexterity to transfer the ball rapidly to Sexton running a loop in behind him or Ringrose on the arc, though, and it’s something that you’ll probably see from Ireland early in the second half.
Lord Of The Skies
If Ireland don’t make any headway with ball in hand on Saturday, will be lost for an alternative way of gaining ground because Wales’ covering of the backfield has been exceptional in this Championship. Converted wingers typically have trouble with the fundamentals of full-back play, such as covering of the space behind the front line and aerial contests, and while Liam Williams’ wasn’t great at these things earlier in his career, he has grown into the 15 shirt admirably.
An English back line that tormented Ireland and France with a variety of kicks from hand got little or no change out of Williams (positionally or aerially), and if you hadn’t seen him before, you would assume that he had never played anywhere other than full-back:
This is what makes Wales so hard to beat at present; an English side with a large pack and a pacy, skillful back line couldn’t outmuscle or outflank them, and varying their tactics by trying to pin the Welsh back in their own half didn’t yield results, either.
This is worrying for Ireland because, bar the France game (where the French had a circus act patrolling the backfield), their tactical kicking hasn’t been particularly effective in this Championship. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been lightning rods for criticism over the last couple of weeks, and even though much of it has been unwarranted, there’s no question that their kicking out of hand hasn’t tested the opposition back three in the manner that Schmidt and Richie Murphy would have liked:
It’s difficult to think of a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve saying something obvious like “kick more accurately”. Wales will be prepared for aerial bombardment from Ireland, but they are more adept at dealing with it than their peers.
George North is one of the tallest wingers in Test rugby and Josh Adams rarely gets caught out in the air, so low, scraping kicks in behind the onrushing blitz or chipping over the top might be better options than high-hanging steeplers. Garry Ringrose excels at putting in grubbers, and although we don’t normally see chip-kicks from Ireland, Saturday is an appropriate occasion to try attempt different.
Last year, Ireland had to rely on a Jacob Stockdale intercept try to seal a win over Wales; Johnny Sexton kicked poorly from the tee on the day so maybe the game wouldn’t have been as close if his radar had been functioning properly, but Wales hung in the fight for the full 80, and they’re certainly not going to burn out this weekend. They’re going to be even tougher to beat on their home patch, and when you consider that they have had a psychological edge over Ireland for so long now, a win for Schmidt’s team this weekend looks less and less likely.
In saying that, Ireland needing to take something from this Championship into the World Cup, and beating an opponent who have become their bogey side away from home (while finishing with 4 wins from 5) would boost their confidence going forward no end. As we have seen with Ireland in this Championship, form can change suddenly, but Ireland will want to go into the World Cup with their last memory of a meaningful fixture being a positive one.