Brent Pope: Ireland more inventive and defensively astute than Wales on day of high drama
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Day one of the highly anticipated RBS Six Nations fell decidedly flat. But day two couldn’t have been more dramatic, as both Ireland and Wales played out a cracking match full of passion and bravery. What a contest.
Unfortunately there was no winner. A draw was not what this game deserved, and with a Grand Slam, Triple Crown and perhaps even a Championship title due to points differential gone, it was a bitter sweet.
The six-day turnaround before France will worry Joe Schmidt especially with injuries to Keith Earls and more significantly Johnny Sexton, who looked particularly uncomfortable leaving the field, despite showing immense bravery in kicking a penalty in the last few minutes to salvage a late draw.
On the positive side, Ireland’s first 30 minutes play was excellent, and the performances of some of Joe Schmidt’s more inexperienced combinations must have made the Irish coach extremely proud, especially that of the internationally untried triumphant of CJ Stander, Tommy O’Donnell and Jamie Heaslip - who in general looked far more dynamic as a loose trio than the much-vaunted Welsh three.
Prior to the start of the game the Irish backline that took on the world a few months ago was missing a few key players, while the pack was also decimated with key absentees like Paul O’Connell (retired) Seán O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Chris Henry and others all out injured.
In fact, Ireland could have fielded a complete alternative starting XV that was maybe even stronger on paper and experience than the one that started. Much interest cantered on whether South African convert CJ Stander, so consistent for Munster, could now replicate his abrasive style with Ireland and that was soon answered with a man of the match performance.
Tactically, Schmidt had to be street smart, looking to use the conditions to get the ball in behind Wales’s big back three and break up their continuity game by moving the ball into the wider channels early on.
Ireland were far more inventive than Wales and defensively astute. Despite being underdogs they started the game particularly well, putting together 17 unbroken phases against the famous Welsh blitz defence with Stander taking several prominent carries allowing him to settle seamlessly into international rugby.
It was then the Welsh team’s turn to apply the pressure, and only some excellent spot tackling from the likes of Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble stopped them in their tracks.
Ireland looked magnificent in the early stages with Tommy O’Donnell and his Munster teammate Stander absolutely brilliant, not far ahead of the likes of Nathan White and Mike McCarthy who both looked far more sprightly than their 34 years would suggest.
The pressure that Ireland were exerting eventually told when Conor Murray went over after the likes of the excellent Robbie Henshaw crashed at the Welsh line. Joe Schmidt could not have been prouder of his team from 1 to 15 against the more fancied team.
And at 13-0 ahead and Wales danger man Dan Biggar off the field, Ireland had all the momentum and that will concern Schmidt the most, failing to score from the 27th minute until the 75th.
Wales, shell shocked by Ireland’s commitment, suddenly had their purple patch and scored ten points in ten minutes. After a series of scrums on the Irish line the Welsh suddenly hit back with a score to their big No 8 Toby Faletau.
It was ‘game on’ with both teams having to refocus and start from scratch in the second half, Ireland thankfully still three points to the good.
The secret for an Irish win would rely on the same commitment in the second half as well as a more efficient kicking game. There was no need to push the panic button but keep the same discipline, tighten up the scrum and tactical kicking.
Wales were soon back on level terms however when Rory Best foolishly ignored several warnings from the referee to get his hands off the ball.
Despite conceding 13 unanswered points Ireland still looked the far better side, and time and time again were only inches away from what looked like good scoring opportunities, especially when the ever dangerous Simon Zebo joined the line.
But despite all the red zone territory, Wales seemed content to defend and had a simple one-off attack game plan and it very nearly worked.
Thank goodness brave Irish out-half Johnny Sexton stepped up and at least insured Ireland did not lose this match.
In the end, this was an old-fashioned, titanic struggle where courage and bravery shone through from both sides, as did a number of Ireland’s more inexperienced players. A lot to build on then before facing a largely uninspiring French side in just six days’ time.
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