Given how difficult an opponent Wales have been for Ireland down the years, you would think that a convincing victory over them would be cause for great celebration, but there was something slightly disappointing about what transpired in the Aviva Stadium yesterday. While it wasn’t a flat performance and a valuable try bonus point was banked, there wasn’t the same sense of elation as two years ago when Ireland put near enough the same amount of points on their Celtic rivals.
Maybe that was down to Wales’ personnel issues and weather conditions on the day, but there’s that nagging feeling that Ireland should have run away with this game in the second half. Instead, they lost any semblance of cohesion after Garry Ringrose’s try, failing to register another score despite being handed countless opportunities to do so against a callow Wales side that were hanging on for dear life. Ireland’s bright start to the game was encouraging, but they will need to review why they weren’t as clinical as they could have been if they are to overcome bigger challenges in this tournament.
The big worry for Ireland coming into this game was how they were going to cope with the expansive style of attacking rugby that Wales play under Wayne Pivac. The monopoly of territory and possession that Ireland enjoyed meant that they weren’t tested defensively as much as they could have been, but even in a second quarter where Wales had a foothold in the Irish half, Ireland were able to handle what Wales threw at them in attack relatively comfortably:
Taine Basham had some aggressive carries in the examples above and Dan Biggar did vary Wales’ attack between wide plays, short passes to forwards on the charge and inside passes to trailing runners, but bar one or two exceptions, Ireland never really looked stretched out wide or porous through the middle.
The main reason why Wales had such limited territory and possession to begin with was that their lineout didn’t function until Ireland were over the horizon on the scoreboard. Ireland were highly competitive on the Welsh throw, and had done their homework on Wales’ schemes and Ryan Elias’ throwing habits:
This is probably the area of the game where Wales missed Alun Wyn Jones’ presence the most. Last year’s British and Irish Lions tour demonstrated that his physical powers are starting to wane with regards to his work around the pitch, but his reading of the game and lineout expertise haven’t diminished at all.
Had he been fit for this game, the totemic lock certainly would have changed up the picture Wales were presenting to Ireland out of touch on the hoof to make their target less predictable. Adam Beard has been tipped to fill Jones’ boots going forward as a leader and a lineout caller, but he’s not that dominant a figure at Test level yet, and as influential a player as Ellis Jenkins is, Wales were missing an assertive leader in the pack.
Ireland enjoyed several long periods of possession throughout the first quarter and second half, partly due to the quality of their own breakdown work, but also because of Wales’ policy of staying out of the ruck to keep more numbers in the defensive line. Ireland compressed them with dominant collisions from their forwards before moving the ball with to the space this created on the edge via double-layered attack and pull-back passes:
Ireland’s wide plays in particular seemed to be geared towards exploiting Josh Adams lack of familiarity with playing at outside centre. The Cardiff man is a top-class international but starting him in midfield against a team with as complex an attacking structure as Ireland turned out to be a bad call on Pivac’s part.
It was obvious from Adams’ body language from the off that he wasn’t comfortable defending the 13 channel and was mindful of giving up space on his outside, but this in turn caused him to repeatedly get caught ball-watching, and he was prone to pushing up too far and across, turning his shoulders towards the touch-line, and thereby leaving a sizeable gap on his inside for Ireland to race through:
As good as Ireland’s wider movements were, Wales really struggled with the battering ram tactics from them around the fringes. They got some decent stops in the closing stages, but Ireland won the majority of the collisions while the game was still a contest with some brutal carries from the likes of James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong:
With the dominance that Ireland enjoyed in the forwards and the low pressure that Wales exerted on them in contact, their attack should have run completely smoothly for the entirety of this fixture, but that wasn’t the case. They were guilty of more than a few handling errors, snatching at and forcing passes that weren’t on when they didn’t need to do so:
The botched offload from Johnny Sexton in the second example above was particularly frustrating, as Ireland were rampant in the Welsh red zone, and if they had been a little bit more patient, another phase or two was likely to result in a try.
Part of Ireland’s aim under Andy Farrell is to throw more offloads in order to keep defences guessing, and they have been criticised in the past for being overly concerned with setting up rucks and securing the ball. It’s not always the right call, though, especially against a team who are always prepared to counter-attack.
The last 20 minutes of this match could have seen Ireland rack up a couple of scores, but instead, they were somewhat stilted in attack. The speed with which the ball was taken out of the ruck dropped significantly when Jamison Gibson-Park left the field, Ireland’s forward runners began to take the ball from a standing start, their clearing out became markedly less efficient, and when they did go wide, they were lateral, and the quality of their option-taking worsened:
In a Championship where England have already suffered an unexpected loss, points difference is going to be crucial, and Ireland’s failure to eke out every point possible could come back to haunt them. The combination of deteriorating weather conditions, substitutions and Joey Carbery’s rustiness having not played in some time could be why Ireland were so disjointed in the last quarter, but they definitely won’t have the game wrapped up by that stage against France next Saturday.
A 22-point margin against a Tier 1 side is not to be sniffed at, but it must be remembered that Ireland had numerous things going their way in this fixture: it was a home game for them, Wales were injury-ravaged, missing their regular captain, had two centres playing out of position (one of whom got yellow-carded), their most potent attacking player injured his ankle in the warm-up, their lineout imploded and their scrum became a liability as the game progressed.
The biggest criticism of Ireland’s performance against Wales was, as ever, their profligacy. They had 13 visits to the Welsh 22, but only came away with tries on 4 of them. It is true that some of those came in the final quarter when the game was over as a contest, but Ireland won’t have as many points-scoring chances against France, or the same level of dominance in the forwards, so they have to be ultra-clinical.
With the pressure that France exert on teams with their blitz defence, we’re unlikely to see Ireland hold on to the ball for as long as they did against Wales, so the few chances they do create need to be converted if they are to be competitive. Blustery weather did contribute to Ireland’s error count against Wales, but it’s entirely possible that the conditions could be the same in Paris next weekend, so hopefully their outing against Wales has blown off the cobwebs.