Sunday 25 June 2017

Alan Quinlan: It looked like Howley used Father Ted logic to pick his team - but his smart call could trouble Ireland

A wounded animal is a dangerous one but Schmidt's men can slay the Dragon in Cardiff lair

Alan Quinlan

Even the priests in Father Ted, gathered around the sitting room in Craggy Island's parochial house, seemed to be searching harder for new ideas.

We're talking about Speed 3, the classic episode in the final series of one of my favourite comedy programmes, where Fr Dougal is stranded on a milk-float, fully aware that a bomb has been activated on the van he is driving and will explode if its speed slows below 4mph.

With Dougal's safety dependent on whatever scheme Ted, Father Beeching and Father Clarke can come up with, Ted, in desperation, turns to his fellow priests and asks: "What can we do?"

The initial suggestion is to say a mass, which the priests subsequently do on the back of a trailer. But to no success. Nor does Plan B - watching The Poseidon Adventure - make any noticeable difference to Dougal's predicament. "We need to do something different lads," Ted says. "What do you think?"

"Is there any merit in saying another mass?" one of them answers.

There wasn't.

Nor, when I initially heard the news, did I think there was any merit in the idea of Rob Howley showing faith in the same 23 players who made up Wales' match-day squad for last month's defeat to Scotland. But what at first, seemed to be the sporting equivalent of 'saying another mass' has a lot more thought in it than people realise.

What people tend to forget is that these Welsh players have ability. Some of them - Dan Biggar, George North, Leigh Halfpenny - may be struggling for form, but there is nothing that motivates a rugby player as much as the accusation you lack pride.

And in particular, there is something particularly dangerous about the sight of angry, aggressive Welshmen, whose desire has been questioned on social media, walking out in front of 74,000 people in the Principality Stadium with a point to prove.

So that's why my initial scepticism about Howley's selection policy didn't last long. This is not just the right move - giving a group of players the chance to fix the mistakes they have made - but a smart one.

Knowing they have one final chance to make it onto the plane with the rest of the Lions tourists, North, Biggar, Halfpenny, Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones et al will not only seek to erase the memories of Murrayfield, but recreate the atmosphere they generated in this fixture in this stadium two years ago.

Then, like now, Ireland had Championship ambitions. Yet they ran into a team who had a point to prove. Which they did, outsmarting Ireland at the breakdown, imposing their physicality on their visitors from the start, building up an early 12-0 lead which Ireland were unable to claw back.

Those slow starts have become a recurring issue for Joe Schmidt. There was the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, the opening game of this championship against Scotland, and then the match against France last month. Each time, they found a way to claw back the deficit, but only once, against the French, did victory arrive.

So the players will know the dangers of fluffing their lines again. Fully aware too of the predictability of Wales' game-plan - whereby their forwards carry a lot and seek to exhaust the opposition - Ireland simply have to match fire with fire.

And should they do so, then my hunch is that this evening in Cardiff will be a productive one, particularly as Wales' two props, Tom Francis and Rob Evans, are nowhere near as dynamic as Ireland's pair, and also because the collective difference in the confidence levels of the two squads is noticeable.

Whereas Ireland have won five of their last seven internationals, Wales have lost seven of their last 11. Worse again, their regions, aside from Ospreys, are also shy of form, the Scarlets taking a thumping off Leinster last week, the Blues losing at home to Munster.

Look at the Pro12 table. Ireland's provinces are first, third, fifth and seventh, while the Welsh clubs are placed second, fourth, eighth and tenth. Only one of them, the Scarlets, made it into the Champions Cup, where they struggled. Munster and Leinster, meanwhile, topped their pools.

All of this makes a difference: it's a virtuous circle where the positivity gleaned from club success feeds into the national team.

Nonetheless, there are no guarantees. Even the absence of Warren Gatland for the season, as he enjoys his sabbatical to coach the Lions, is not necessarily the negative issue some are claiming it to be. For starters, when Gatland last took a year off, Wales won the championship under Howley's guidance.

Howley is a fine coach, and the freshness of Alex King's voice on the training paddock can also be considered a positive.

Is the presence of Wayne Barnes as referee an additional boost to the Welsh? I'm not so sure, irrespective of the furore that surrounded his decisions in Cardiff two years ago, when he declined to give Ireland a penalty near the end of that match off a maul - a decision that cost Schmidt's side a draw.

What's worth remembering is that Barnes also handed Warburton a yellow card in that game. So it wasn't as if it was a one-way thing. Barnes is the type of ref who isn't shy in penalising guys for straying offside. But at least you know where you stand with him. If you are squeaky clean and disciplined, particularly at the breakdown, which Ireland weren't two years ago in Cardiff, then you tend not to be on the wrong end of his calls.

So the key is to adjust your tactics in accordance with the English official's habits.

I simply don't see Barnes' appointment as a major factor, even if Ireland have lost big games where he officiated before.

For me, the breakdown will decide things. If Ireland's players' front up to Wales' aggression, keep their composure and avoid the concession of an early lead, then I've no doubt they can win.

It wouldn't bother me if we kicked the leather off the ball and played the game in the right areas of the field. Our maul was good against a really powerful France pack last month. It is an area Ireland should take Wales on in.

They should also use some of the tactics Scotland tried against Wales last month. If Ireland hold onto the ball and apply relentless pressure, not only can they take away Wales' belief and confidence, they can leave them physically exhausted. As Scotland did.

Noticeably, England too finished the game stronger than the Welsh. The suspicion is that Ireland are the fitter side. And providing they start the game well, they will also be the winning one.

Irish Independent

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