2020 was something of an annus horribilis for Wales; 3 wins out of 10 Tests (with two of those victories coming against Italy and the other against Georgia) is a poor return for a team that won a Grand Slam and reached a World Cup semi-final two years ago. It would be wide of the mark to say that they have regressed, however. Their lower win/loss ratio is a result of a new head coach transforming their game plan, but they haven’t adapted to that new strategy anywhere near as quick as their supporters would have liked.
It looks like it’s going to be some time before they do so, and while it would be foolish of Ireland to expect a comfortable victory in a venue where they have suffered some of their worst losses in the last couple of years, Wales’ current state of disarray makes coming away from Cardiff with a win this Sunday a more realistic outcome than it was in recent Championships. The return to form of Taulupe Faeltau has been a shot in the arm for Wayne Pivac’s side, and despite the absence of a crowd, this will be a tougher fixture than it was for Ireland in either of their 2020 meetings with the same opponent.
We have seen with Wales that the standard of passing required for Wayne Pivac’s free-flowing style of attack isn’t quite there yet, and their players don’t always seem to be on the same page with regards to running lines and timing, with promising attacking sequences often breaking down:
Unless Wales make an enormous leap with their attacking fluidity since their last outing, there should be openings for Ireland to force handling errors or cross-field running from them through aggressive line speed. We have seen from Ireland that they are more willing now to keep the ball alive off turnovers, and with skillful forwards like Peter O’Mahony and pacy outside backs like Keith Earls, breakaway tries from Welsh knock-ons could be on the cards.
Although Wales’ attack has stuttered for large patches of their performances in 2020, they weren’t entirely incapable of generating scores, manufacturing some impressive tries via superb link play in their Autumn Nations Cup clash with Italy:
The onus is on Ireland to make sure that the inside defender is back up on their feet quickly after every collision because Wales won’t hesitate to target this space again after profiting from it as greatly as they did against the Azzurri. This type of play suits mobile, dextrous forwards such as Justin Tipuric down to the ground, and even though Wales’ wide movements need refinement, they can still hurt opposition defences with the kind of interplay shown above.
Wales struggled badly up front in the early part of 2020, with Ireland and England dominating them in the close-quarters exchanges, but they demonstrated a steely edge against a mammoth English pack last November, and the return of Dan Lydiate to their starting XV will bolster them in terms of defence. The Ospreys flanker is past his peak years, but remains a tackling workhorse, so it probably won’t be as easy for Ireland to gain traction against Wales through the forwards as it was last year.
At the same time, they haven’t yet replaced Byron Hayward in their backroom team, and the absence of a defence specialist showed in their performances in the Autumn Nations Cup has been noticeable in their work off the ball:
If we freeze-frame the clips above when the ball gets to first-receiver, you can see how the lack of synchronisation between the Welsh defenders produces big gaps:
By all accounts, Gethin Jenkins’ role in the Welsh coaching ticket is technical advisor for defence/breakdown. I would take that to mean that he is focusing on the technical aspects of tackling and poaching, but even if defensive organisation is included in his remit, there is no way of knowing yet if this is an area of expertise for him.
Assuming that Ireland do create a few line breaks this Sunday, they have to improve their conversion rate. They were their own worst enemies once they got close to the Welsh try-line last November, with inaccurate breakdown work and late arrivals from the support players gifting Wales turnovers at points in the game where they were set to score:
This has been a problem for Ireland going as far back as the latter stages of the Joe Schmidt era, and when you look back at their Autumn Nations Cup meeting with Wales, they had at least five try-scoring opportunities, but only converted two. They are unlikely to get that many chances this Sunday, so it is crucial that they turn pressure into points, because mistakes in these situations will boost the morale of the home team.
Ireland were a long way off the level of performance that is necessary to beat some of their rivals in this tournament last year, but a good win over Wales in a stadium where they normally falter would be a brilliant start for them, especially in a year where they have France and England at home. They have the quality of players to beat Italy and Scotland away from home, and if they can manage one home win this year, it puts them in contention for a Championship title.
With Alun Wyn Jones showing signs of wear and tear, and Wales not having a clear successor for him as their pack totem, Ireland will must be ruthless in going for the jugular from the off. The return of Tadhg Furlong to their ranks as well as the increased competition provided by the likes of Craig Casey and Gavin Coombes should bring a vibrancy to their wider squad that is usually a trademark of successful teams. Andy Farrell has spoken about Ireland learnings on several occasions, and given that his players have had a full year of harsh lessons, now is the time to utilise their experience and put together consistent performances.