It’s difficult to know exactly where Ireland’s outstanding performance against Wales yesterday came from. Maybe it was an immediate response to their lethargic, error-strewn showing against Scotland in Round 1, maybe it was a revenge mission for what happened in Cardiff last March, or maybe they just got sick and tired of looking in the mirror and knowing that they had been playing well below their best for over a year.
There is no such thing as a perfect performance, but Ireland outplayed Wales on an individual and collective level in a way that no one could have foreseen. Credit has to go to the Irish management for out-thinking their Welsh counterparts, because as much as Ireland’s players progressed from last week, Andy Farrell and co. did their homework on Wales, and the finer details of Ireland’s win yesterday are worth reviewing.
Opening The Playbook
Despite making a handful of line breaks, Ireland were guilty of going wide-wide without committing defenders against Scotland. They rectified this by being more effective with their wide movements by having their decoy runners be more aggressive with their lines, increasing their offload count, improving their support play and probing the Welsh backfield with well-weighted grubber kicks.
Their use of the superb Andrew Conway in the 10 channel off lineouts was a worthwhile ploy; it fixed Welsh defenders in midfield and tied up their sweeping players, so that they couldn’t drift across the pitch as soon as the ball left Conor Murray’s hands, thus giving Ireland more room to manoeuvre further out. Pre-game, I felt that Garry Ringrose’s absence due to injury would limit Ireland’s attacking range, but in his place, Robbie Henshaw got a significant amount of change out of targeting Nick Tompkins with thundering runs.
Ireland were more than willing to go wide early, with acres of space in the 15-metre channel outside Tompkins to utilise, but their work in the close-quarters was devastating, too. Their use of one-out carries has been widely criticised for years now, but if it works, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t keep it in their attacking armoury. They bullied Wales with punishing carries from the get-go, setting the tone for the physical dominance they would enjoy throughout the game.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and if battering a team’s pack close-in is allowing you to make yards while sapping the opposition’s energy, there is no sense in Ireland discarding the tactic. Going side-to-side is easy to defend against if you’re not moving forward and finding a happy middle ground between the two is key to having a potent attack. The same logic applies to Ireland’s maul. It let them down badly in Round 1, but yesterday it was a force of nature, dragging in several Welsh forwards to create space further out to exploit.
Mike Catt deserves huge praise for the variety to Ireland’s attack. Ireland came under fire for scoring a solitary try against one of the weaker teams in the competition last weekend, and to get a bonus point against a side that kept their opponent scoreless in their previous fixture is a big feather in the cap for the Englishman. If what Ireland produced with ball in hand yesterday is a sign of things to come, then they shouldn’t fear taking on John Mitchell’s or Shaun Edward’s defences.
Spanners In The Works
Ireland went into this game knowing that if they were going to win, they would have to nullify Wales’ lethal expansive play. The starting point for any attack is the set-piece, and on top of being competitive on the Welsh throw, Ireland singled out Tomos Williams by racing through the middle of the lineout once it was over in an attempt to snare the Welsh scrum-half.
In phase play, Ireland stymied Wales’ back play with a rush defence in midfield. The Welsh backs enjoyed a lot of time on the ball and space to operate in with in their rout over Italy, but Ireland got up in their faces and forced poor passes from a group of players who looked like the All Blacks no more than a week ago. It wasn’t only their line speed that stopped Wales’ attack from getting into gear; occupying the offloading channels paid dividends for Ireland. Passing the ball out of contact stresses defence, but by having players blocking the space outside the ball-carrier, Ireland took yet another attacking weapon away from Wales.
Multi-phase play requires quick ruck-ball, and Ireland were a thorn in Wales’ side at the breakdown, regularly getting in poach positions over the ball. Even when they didn’t get the turnover, Ireland disrupted Wales’ rhythm by lying at the back of the ruck, obstructing the path of potential clear-out players. They should have got penalised for doing so, but Wales were more than willing to push the boundaries, and Ireland would have been naive not to do the same.
Fractions of a second make a world of difference when a team is trying to play with tempo, and Ireland accumulated enough small margin wins with the above method to make a noticeable impact on Wales’ attacking sets. The concerted pressure that Ireland put Wales under drew uncharacteristic errors from Williams and Biggar, and as Ireland learned last year, it is next to impossible to win games when both of your half-backs are misfiring.
Ireland’s coaching ticket also cleverly recognised that Wales’ game plan can’t work if they don’t get a decent share of territory; going wide-wide is not an exciting prospect when you are deep in your own half, and Ireland’s repeated tactic of pinning Wales back with intelligent kicking went a long way towards taking the attacking sting out of this high-flying Welsh team. There were occasions where Ireland were caught short of numbers or slipped off tackles, but overall, they shut down Wales’ back line and minimised the influence of their inventive style of attack on the match.
A Brighter Road Ahead
Ireland’s defensive set in the third quarter demonstrated that not only are they still able to perform at a high level, but they haven’t lost the heart and soul that was a vital ingredient to their success pre-2019, and their upcoming trips to London and Paris look a little less daunting. As good as Ireland were against Wales, the most pleasing aspect of their victory was that there was room for improvement. Their scrum caused them trouble again, and they squandered a couple of try-scoring chances with moments of inaccuracy, and for the second week running took a pointless risk by running around in their own 22 at the start of the second half.
However, the manner in which they played in the right areas of the field against Wales for the most part showed that they analysed where they went wrong against Scotland and made the necessary adjustments. The sustained excellence of players like Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, Conor Murray rediscovering his best form and others, such as Robbie Henshaw and Andrew Conway, slotting into the team and putting in brilliant performances, as well as Johnny Sexton improving as a captain make Ireland a dangerous proposition for anyone.
With England appearing to be a diminished force without Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi and France being callow in terms of experience, Ireland finishing this competition with at least four wins isn’t as implausible as it seemed two weeks ago, provided that they can maintain the standard of performance that we saw against Wales. That’s no disrespect to Italy, who are bound to get better as the Championship progresses, but this resounding win has changed the complexion of this tournament completely for Ireland.