Late in the second half of Virgin Media One’s coverage of the Wales v Ireland fixture today, Alan Quinlan stated that the game was a case of everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Ireland. I wouldn’t fully agree with that, because the match wasn’t a total catsatrophe; they were down to 14 men after 13 minutes and when that happens, 9 times out of 10, you are in for an absolute hiding, but it’s fair to say that Ireland didn’t get what they wanted in a number of ways.
Peter O’Mahony will more than likely be ruled out of the France game, and so too could James Ryan and Johnny Sexton, and Ireland are already without Caelan Doris. All the same, their attack was quite fluent, their lineout work was a step up from what we saw from them last year, and they were comfortable with most of what Wales threw at them in attack. That they didn’t capitulate is a positive in and of itself, and that resilience will stand to them for the rest of this competition.
Test Of Character
Ireland responded excellently to O’Mahony’s red card by upping their aggression and energy levels and kicking smartly to ensure that they were playing in the right parts of the pitch. Once they get possession in the Welsh half, they start putting them through the phases with dominant forward carries and top-class clear-out work:
That allowed them to settle into their attacking pattern, and they found a lot of space with ball in hand through a combination of productive use of their 1-3-2-2 system and George North’s poor defensive positioning in the 13 channel:
Normally, when a team goes down a man, they become tentative in much of what they do, but Ireland were dogged in their defensive efforts. Their line speed and defensive spacing were superb for the most part, but what was even more impressive was the turnovers they won through jackalling on the floor and ripping the ball in the tackle from Wayne Pivac’s side:
After going in at half-time with a lead and on the front foot in general, the tide turned, and Ireland let Wales get the upper hand in the second half, largely due to bad game management. Their error and penalty rates shot up, but there was a lack of control from half-back, with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton putting in territorial kicks that were too long to be contestable:
For me, the two biggest momentum swings in this game (outside of North’s try) came when Ireland failed to clear their lines, with the first being a kick out on the full from Keith Earls in the 57th minute:
After doing well to disrupt the Welsh throw, Ireland really needed to get some kind of a clearance, but they lost yardage and possession because of the mistake from the winger. There’s no doubt that fatigue contributed to Earls’ decision-making in this instance, but it undid the good work of his teammates, and it had a clear deflating effect.
As costly as that blunder was, the worst error in judgement of the match (apart from Billy Burns’ kick out on the full at the death) came from Garry Ringrose in the 48th minute. With a scrum in their own 22, Ireland decided to run a set play in their own 22, with Ringrose having a cut at the side of the Welsh scrum, and then attempting an offload to Sexton:
It’s understandable that Ireland would use this pre-planned move at some stage of the match, and Ringrose did make a half-break, but they should have been mindful of where they were of the field, as well as the fact that they had sustained a period of pressure leading up to this scrum. Like with the kick out on the full from Earls, Ireland had to just relieve the siege that they were under but instead handed Wales another set piece deep in their own half.
Keeping The Head Up
Ireland can rightly be aggrieved with Wayne Barnes’ refereeing, but they showed incredible heart with the manner in which they reacted to the red card in the first half, and then their refusal to give up in the dying minutes. On top of the positives to their attacking play, their maul was a weapon, and you can see Paul O’Connell’s fingerprints all over their work in this department:
The same applies to their defensive lineout jumping, where they had clearly done their homework on the Welsh throw:
Ireland had double the carries and metres made that Wales had, another sign that their attack is becoming more and more effective, but they now have personnel issues, with O’Mahony, Ryan and Sexton potentially out of the France game, and question marks over Billy Burns’ performance. Regardless of who starts next Sunday, though, they will have to improve the execution of their kicking out of hand because the mistakes they made in this area will be punished ruthlessly by France if they are repeated.
Losing your first game is a nightmare start to any Six Nations campaign, especially against a team that you were expected to beat. The Triple Crown is out of the question now, and with Les Bleus having clicked into gear and England certain to bounce back from their defeat to Scotland, Ireland have a difficult few weeks in store, and that’s without the injury troubles. You can’t fault Andy Farrell’s side side for effort or character, and they will need every ounce of that between now and March 20th to muster even a decent finish to this tournament.