Ireland’s loss to Wales yesterday was eerily reminiscent of their defeat to England in the last round of the 2012 Six Nations; the conditions were atrocious, Ireland didn’t manage them well (while their opponents did) and everything they tried to do was hindered by slow ruck ball. The difference between the two matches is that the 2012 fixture against England was essentially a dead rubber for Ireland; they had only won two of their first four games and had no chance of winning the tournament outright, whereas on Saturday they had the opportunity to a deny a bitter rival a Grand Slam, as well as a feint hope of being crowned champions themselves.
The defeat and the manner in which it happened will rankle (not least because they didn’t end Joe Schmidt’s time in the Six Nations on a high, on top of being outmanoeuvred by Warren Gatland once again), but in the short term, they need to take a good look at where they went wrong in this Championship, and why their performances and results are so different to what they produced in 2018. In a parallel universe, Jacob Stockdale wouldn’t have been dragged into touch from the kick-off and Ireland could have started the game brightly and pushed on to win and be awarded the top prize, but you can’t always get what you want.
Schmidt often talks about the fine margins, but Ireland seem to be on the wrong side of them a lot lately. A low error count is key to their game plan, and Ireland’s players have been guilty of mistakes that are viewed as unforgivable by their demanding head coach. Their performance against France demonstrated that they remain capable of being a great team, but there is much to ponder after their depressing loss to Wales.
In the aftermath of their scrappy win over Italy, I made the point that Ireland usually flounder when they come up against a side who are competitive on the deck and quick to reorganise in defence, and yesterday was no different. Wales made an absolute nuisance of themselves at what seemed like every breakdown by falling on the wrong side, applying pressure over the ball (legally and illegally) and sticking out stray boots to prevent Ireland from having clean ball at the base of the ruck:
The slow ruck ball that followed on from Wales’ interference in the contact zone directly hindered Ireland’s heavy-carrying phase-play attack, because without being able to up the tempo, they were forced to ship the ball on to forwards who were standing still, and they regularly got smashed behind the gain line by a Welsh defence who were up to the task:
Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and CJ Stander are normally Ireland’s most reliable performers in terms of ball carrying, but even they couldn’t manage to inflict the same amount of pain on the defence as they do every other week, and the rest of the Irish forwards were second-best in contact all afternoon, too.
The pressure that was exerted on Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton visibly unsettled them, and they struggled to get Ireland’s back line going, with substandard passes taking the air out of several of Ireland’s wide movements:
Forgetting The Umbrella
Much was made of Ireland’s preference for keeping the roof of the Principality Stadium open in the media, and as painful as it is to bring up something that got more column inches than it deserved, the weather conditions did play a part yesterday. In hindsight Ireland’s decision to leave the roof open looks strange when you take into account how the wind and rain influenced what they were trying to do more than it did Wales.
When the weather conditions are atrocious, the ball is a liability, and any contestable kick has he potential to cause havoc in the opposition ranks, and Ireland were outplayed under the high ball:
As mentioned earlier, Murray and Sexton underperformed badly in this game, and although they weren’t the only Irish players who did so, the damage that was done by Wales’ work up front clearly affected the skill execution of the Irish half-backs:
As harsh as it sounds, the best thing for Ireland during the match might have been to substitute both players earlier, especially considering the impetus that Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty gave when they entered the fray. Schmidt had no problem calling Seán O’Brien ashore when the Leinster back rower was having an off-day, so why he didn’t do the same with Murray or Sexton is a mystery.
The Irish pack didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, either. When conditions are bad, a high number of lineouts (and lineout mauls) is guaranteed, and Ireland didn’t fare well in this department in attack or defence. Despite buying a couple of penalties with their own catch-and-drives, Ireland could never take full advantage, and they conceded needless cheap penalties when defending the Welsh maul:
Mauling was Ireland’s main strength back in the 2013-2014 season, and even though they have expanded their game plan since then, it would ideally be a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency tool that they could use when other parts of their game falter. That didn’t happen yesterday and when you add Angus Gardner’s questionable interpretation of the scrum into the mix, Ireland had no fallback to get themselves a foothold in the match.
Comparisons have been drawn between Ireland’s form so far this year and their collapse in 2007 by many (including people who should know better), but I just don’t see it. That year, Ireland were impressive in the Six Nations and were a last-gasp Vincent Clerc try away from a Grand Slam, before going on to implode at the World Cup in France. This year, they have delivered two poor performances (England and Wales), two that were adequate (Scotland and Italy) and one that was somewhere near their 2018 brilliance (France), and we don’t know what their World Cup form is like because that tournament hasn’t actually happened yet.
So, saying that Ireland are definitely going to fall apart in Japan in September because they’ve played below par over the last seven weeks is more than a little bit premature, and if anything, getting a wake-up call now is better than getting one in a World Cup quarter-final. As Schmidt said, Ireland’s recent foibles should act as the perfect vaccination for the main event in September, and they have gotten a stark reminder as to how bad things can get if they let their intensity and accuracy levels drop even slightly.
Between injuries and squad rotation, Ireland’s squad depth has been tested extensively, something that was outlined as an objective for this Championship by their head coach. There have been mixed results in this regard; O’Brien looks to have played himself out of a place on the plane to Japan, but Dave Kilcoyne has been a standout at loosehead prop and Jack Carty has arguably overtaken Joey Carbery in the pecking order at 10, a position where Ireland were threadbare following Ian Madigan’s departure from Ireland and Paddy Jackson’s contract being revoked.
There are other fringe players who have made a case for themselves in this tournament, and if Ireland have to use them in the event of injury later on this year and break new ground in the process, people will be quick to forget about an unsatisfactory Six Nations. The very same voices have claimed that every game in this World Cup cycle should have been used to experiment and blood new players in order to give Ireland a better shot at lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in November, but as soon as the results didn’t go Ireland’s way, they painted a handful of disappointing games as a doomsday scenario.
The reality is that Ireland’s players and coaches have six months to look themselves in the mirror before an era-defining tournament kicks off, and given the amount of failed World Cups a number of them have been involved in, it’s hard to imagine them allowing the chance to make history slip through their fingers due to a repeat of their latest off-colour showings. If you look at the results between the top 10 teams in the world over the last few seasons, Test rugby has become a more level playing field; there aren’t as many gulfs in class as there used to be, and Ireland will know that they aren’t far away from the top of the pile.