Saturday 10 December 2016

Alan Quinlan: Ireland lost a big lead but learned a bigger lesson

Alan Quinlan

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

Devin Toner blocks down the kick of Gareth Davies during Ireland’s draw against Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Devin Toner blocks down the kick of Gareth Davies during Ireland’s draw against Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

No Paul O'Connell. No Sean O'Brien. No Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, Mike Ross, Cian Healy or Mike Ross. So no hope, right?

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Wrong. Even though they were missed - particularly O'Connell - we saw something special yesterday.

As a game it was a brilliant advertisement for Six Nations rugby, so much better than the fare served up on Saturday, so much better than what we considered possible when the injuries kept piling up and the doubters kept finding their voice.

Coming into this game, Ireland had a number of questions hanging over them? Could they get across the gainline? Would their defence stand up? Would their tactics be easy on the eye or hard on the opposition? And most pertinently, with so many big names missing, were their replacements capable of stepping up to the plate?

We got our answer. It was both disappointing and uplifting, the disappointment stemming from the result - at 13-0 up, we should have sealed the deal - but uplifting in terms of how we played and what we learned.

Young men came of age yesterday: CJ Stander had a wonderful game, likewise Tommy O'Donnell. We got a big 80 minutes from Simon Zebo, whose moral bravery in trying to run right through the Welsh defence time after time kept the visitors on their toes.

Devin Toner blocks down the kick of Gareth Davies during Ireland’s draw against Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Devin Toner blocks down the kick of Gareth Davies during Ireland’s draw against Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Taulupe Faletau, Wales. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

And if seems strange and stupid to talk about Devin Toner - a man who is 6ft 10ins - stepping out of someone else's shadow, then bear in mind whose shadow we were talking about. Paul O'Connell is a big man in every sense of the world. He dominated Irish teams for years. And now he's gone.

Yet Toner didn't blink. He assumed leadership in the lineout, made some big calls and delivered. He can be proud of how he played. Likewise, Mike McCarthy, who was on a hiding to nothing. Yet he put in a shift, pressurised the Welsh throws and won a couple of clean balls for himself into the bargain.

So pats on the back there. But the biggest plaudits go to Ireland's back-row who played the Welsh off the park, particularly in that opening 27 minutes when the lead was stretched to 13 points and we were wondering if we were going to win by a double-digit margin.

Imposing

That we didn't is easily explained. First up, you have to acknowledge the Welsh are an impressive side, physically imposing, mentally resilient. A lesser team would have cracked yesterday. They'd have looked at the circumstances - the loss of 13 points, the loss of their playmaker and goalkicker, the arrival of a guy who can't even get a game for Bath, and they'd have thought: 'we're away from home here, it just won't be our day'.

But that isn't Wales. Remember the World Cup and what they did to England? Under Warren Gatland, they never give up. You're guaranteed a fight to the end with those guys. While they aren't the prettiest team, they are effective.

Yesterday, they dug in. An opening was created - incorrectly it has to be said when Keith Earls was penalised and Rhys Priestland was afforded the opportunity to get the Welsh off zero.

He took it. And soon 13-3 was 13-10, the Irish scrum disintegrating under pressure, Taulupe Faletau (below) using superb technique as well as brute strength to bundle his way over the line. And in the blink of an eye, we were watching a different game.

Yet if my admiration for the Welsh fighting qualities is unquestioned, then it is matched by what I saw from that much-changed Irish side yesterday too. Would we have won if O'Connell had have been there? The simple answer is yes. He'd have found a way to get us over the line. He'd have been in the referee's ear, would have stolen a lineout ball here or there, would have put his red head on the line and knocked a man in a red shirt back a yard or two to signal his intent.

And the crowd would have responded and the momentum would have shifted.

That's rugby. For all the talk about technical issues - the functioning of a lineout, the organisation of a defence, the strength of a scrum, the issue of who is dominant at a breakdown - sometimes something as simple as old-fashioned momentum can determine so much.

We saw it yesterday. Early on, Ireland had it. Three visits to the Welsh 22 yielded three scores and 13 points. Game over? Not a chance.

Back came Wales. That penalty against Earls had a huge bearing on the game. Momentum changed. Wales got a foothold in the match, got a score, then another, then a conversion and two penalties. Suddenly they were leading and the ghost of Paul O'Connell was hanging right over this team.

Which was when we started to see new leaders. Think Rory Best, a brave heart and a clever man. He had a fine game as captain. His deputy, Jamie Heaslip, stood tall too: that steal from the Welsh, who had protected the ball through 27 phases in the closing minutes, does wonders for a team.

So does Johnny Sexton's equalising score. Clearly hurt, he defied his pain to land a monstrous penalty. Those are the things leaders do. Just as Conor Murray's lung-busting charge to get to Priestland and pressurise him into screwing his last-ditch drop-goal wide highlighted how he is now officer class too.

All round the park we saw this stuff - guys taking ownership of the team, defending with brains as well as bravery, Earls and Andrew Trimble the prime examples. As a unit, the defending was brilliant. They had desire, which is key, and the organisation was terrific.

And as a team, they'll come on so much because of what happened. The disappointment is in the result not the performance.

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