Opening Night

Ireland v Wales - Match Preview (Opening Night) Header Photo
Test Of Mettle: Robbie Henshaw takes on the Welsh defence in Cardiff last year. After a shaky opening 14 minutes in the Principality Stadium, Peter O’Mahony’s red card lit a fire under Ireland, prompting them to dominate the rest of the first half, but ultimately, they came up short. Henshaw was among a couple of standout individuals on the day (including Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier), but Ireland didn’t play with any sort of cohesion in that fixture. 12 months later, the same cannot be said for them, but Wales have improved too, and home advantage won’t count for much against a team that have become particularly dangerous in attack under Wayne Pivac.

Peter O’Mahony’s red card in the Principality Stadium last year and the progress that Ireland and Wales have made since then mean that we’re probably going to see a very different game to what the last meeting between these sides produced. Both teams are on a near-identical trajectory since RWC 2019; their new head coaches decided to move away from the conservative tactics of their predecessors after that tournament by getting them to play with more risk and adventure. While their players struggled to adapt to these new tactics throughout 2020 and into the following Six Nations, they finally found their footing by the end of March last year.

That being said, there are noticeable differences between the way the two use the ball. Wales are more inclined to go to the 15-metre channel more regularly whereas battering teams around the fringes remains a significant part of Ireland’s game plan, albeit to a lesser extent than under Joe Schmidt. I would posit that this isn’t necessarily a sign of Ireland having less ambition than Wales, but more them playing to one of their biggest strengths: an abundance of explosive ball-carriers in the pack.

Heft or dynamism in the forwards have never been hallmarks of Welsh sides, even when they were racking up trophies using Warren Gatland’s direct, territorial tactics, and the likes of Seb Davies, Adam Beard, Wyn Jones and Ellis Jenkins are more renowned for the nuts-and-bolts aspects of their positions than their ability to steamroll tacklers around the pitch. Wayne Pivac’s style of play is geared towards this, though, and they had no difficulty working around this potential weakness last year, with wins over Ireland and England, and narrow losses to France and South Africa.

Touch-Line To Touch-Line

Wales know their main threats are in the backline and their expert use of forward pods as decoys gives them the means of getting the ball into the hands of Josh Adams, Louis-Rees Zammit and Liam Williams, with a ‘punch’ option in midfield to draw defenders or change things up when required:

Going wide frequently is exciting to watch and plays to the strengths of the current crop of players that Pivac has at his disposal, but the fact that Wales do it so often leaves them vulnerable to the traditional shooter defence at 13. Anton Lienert-Brown makes an outstanding read and hit in the clip below, but even before contact is made, Johnny Williams hesitates and runs cross-field due to the All Black centre rushing up on him:

Something similar happened again in the same match, with Will Jordan rushing up and in as the edge the defender to cut off the supply of the ball to the space in the tramlines:

The above movement was somewhat laboured, and Wales’ passing out wide is normally faster and smoother, but Ireland could get a big return by adopting the same tactics defensively.

There is always risk involved in this type of umbrella defence, as if the attack manages to outflank the last defender, a break down the tramlines will occur, and then it becomes a case of how quick the scramble defence is, and the height of Wales’ wingers makes the cross-field kick a viable option at all times. However, if Ireland let Wales move the ball across the pitch freely, then the game could slip through their grasp.

Missing Hymn Sheet

Considering how good they were at competing on the opposition throw last year, and how Wales’ lineout imploded against the All Blacks, Ireland’s first port of call in this fixture should be going after the Welsh out of touch. With two opensides in their starting back row, Wales only have three genuine jumpers in their starting pack, and although Aaron Wainwright excels in this area, they are still limited in terms of jumping options.

There are other issues they have besides this; Ryan Elias’ slight double-pump action pre-throw makes his timing easy to anticipate, and the lack of rearrangement or deception from their pods means that their intended target is predictable:

Elias has also demonstrated that he is prone to an overthrow, and even though synchronisation is a factor in this, I think Ireland could profit by choking the front of the line with James Ryan.

The Scarlets hooker failed to hit the 6’8” Adam Beard even when New Zealand exerted no pressure on him in the example below, so having Ireland put their tallest forward at the front could throw him off-rhythm, not to mention the havoc that Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony could cause in the second half:

As well as their lineout woes, I think Wales’ tactic of kicking long and infield in order to increase the ball-in-play time should allow Ireland to run the ball back to at least halfway and get into their attacking patterns from there.

Without being disrespectful, I think Ireland will find space to exploit in the Welsh defence if they do establish long periods of possession in the right parts of the pitch. Last year, I questioned the nature of Gethin Jenkins’ role in the Welsh coaching setup, and the standard of Wales’ defensive organisation hasn’t been overly impressive lately.

Jenkins’ initial introduction as a technical advisor with regards to the breakdown and defence made sense given how technically proficient and niggly in contact he was as a player (and Wales’ combativeness in contact is a testament to his coaching ability in that particular facet), but the gaps that appear in the Welsh defence on sequential phases and the absence of awareness on the part of the players to plug these holes are symptomatic of a coach who prioritises contact skills over shape and reorganisation:

South Africa don’t take advantage in the next clip, but for two phases in a row, Wales leave a massive hole on the right-hand side of the Springbok breakdown, and had this been identified by Herschel Jantjies, a line break was on the cards:

Wales also have trouble with their fringe defence, with some of their A-B-C defenders shooting out of the line. Some teams have a policy of allowing their players to do this (as we saw earlier with the All Blacks), but when they do, there is usually a system in place whereby the player making the spot tackle lets the defenders either side of him know so that they close in towards one another to cover the space he has vacated.

Wales don’t seem to do this, though, as there is no apparent communication from the shooter when they decide to rush up, and it leads to a dog-leg in the defensive line that their opponents exploited with ease back in November:

Ireland are past masters at using one-out carriers and tip-on passes from their forwards to target this space near the ruck, and Jamison Gibson-Park is always scanning for this kind of space, with Caelan Doris’ superb try against the All Blacks being a prime example. The teams they faced in the Autumn Nations Series found their front row too much to handle tight to the breakdown, and Wales could too, if Ireland have a monopoly on possession.

Wales’ defensive alignment off scrums is also bound to be a focal point for Ireland, as for some reason, they are leaving a huge gap between the edge scrum and the next defender in the line. It’s possible that they are doing this to deter teams from moving the ball wide into heavy traffic, but Ireland are sure to have a cut off the spaces highlighted in yellow and blue below with an inside pass from 10, or a pass from 9 directly to Bundee Aki at first-receiver:

Ireland will struggle to generate momentum in attack if their breakdown work isn’t sharp, as in defence, Wales are committing at least one (two in a lot of cases) aggressive jackallers to the breakdown, and we can see the disruption they caused New Zealand in this department on sequential phases in the clip below:

Not many teams inconvenience the All Blacks on the floor because of how mobile the majority of their players are, and Taine Basham was a standout player in the November series for Wales in this regard:

Singling Basham out at the breakdown will be crucial to the efficiency of Ireland’s attack this Saturday, because if they don’t blast him off the ball at every opportunity, then their multi-phase attacking strategy won’t come to fruition. And if they are going to try to take advantage of the difference in size and physicality that they have in the pack by pummelling Wales close-in, then there will be numerous opportunities for Basham to poach, so removing him from the equation should be one of their primary objectives.

Cloudy Horizon

If Ireland are to win on Saturday, they will have to prevent the game from being expansive and open to the point of suiting Wales (without battening down the hatches completely when they are in possession themselves), but the finer points outlined above will need to be observed for this to happen. There’s no point in reading too much into these sides’ respective displays against New Zealand last November, because while the All Blacks have a hoodoo over Wales, Ireland certainly don’t, and the recent changes in coaching and playing personnel that both sides have undergone aren’t likely to have taken the edge off this fixture.

There’s no way of knowing what Ireland’s objectives for this tournament are. They could be looking to win it outright on the back of the positive energy they created with their stellar performances in the Autumn Nations Series, or it might just be a building block towards RWC 2023. Game time for their alternatives at out-half should be a priority either way, but given that they have a difficult schedule this year, they need a strong start, especially in what will be their toughest home game of the competition.

A loss to Wales on Saturday makes the trip to Paris the following week even more daunting, and being 0 from 2 going into the midpoint of the Championship would be a nightmare scenario for Ireland compared to what they accomplished in November. With a three-Test series of New Zealand waiting for them at the end of an already disrupted season, Ireland cannot afford to finish this Six Nations on a down note. Unless Johnny Sexton gets an injury-free run during this tournament, victories over France or England are unlikely, so winning their home games is the bare minimum that Ireland must achieve this spring.

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