George Hook: 'Dorian Gray' O'Driscoll a colossus but jury still out on this team
Published 04/02/2013 | 04:00
They had almost twice as much possession and territory; they carried the ball for almost three times as many yards; and won more rucks and mauls. Yet Wales lost to Ireland in Cardiff and for 43 minutes it was ignominious.
In one of the most dire first-half performances in the history of the proud Principality, they conceded their status as Grand Slam champions and, three minutes into the second half, they looked like doing it with a whimper.
How then to make sense of the next 37 minutes? Wales had Ireland on the rack and with calmer back play could have scored six tries – and with better decision-making on taking points from kicks could have made the last 10 minutes a fraught period for the visitors.
This match reminded me of Ireland in Paris under Eddie O'Sullivan in 2006 when a similar performance by the French in the first half put the game beyond reach. In Cardiff, after the interval, Wales clearly decided to abandon their game plan, throw caution to the wind and play for pride. The result was that the match went to the wire.
On Saturday I questioned the mental strength of these players if interim coach Rob Howley did not have the full confidence of the squad. The first half provided compelling evidence that this is a team at odds with its management.
Howley's selection was also flawed. The omission of Justin Tipuric, which surprised almost everybody, was thrown into stark relief when his arrival coincided with the Welsh fightback. And the arrival of Lloyd Williams at scrum-half added space and time for the backline.
Brian O'Driscoll had hinted that this Six Nations could be his last, but Declan Kidney said: "Brian will make up his own mind. I would not like to sway him. Huge credit to him, given the amount of game time he has had, to come out and give such an international class performance like he did today." In other words, he should still be captain.
Rory Best surprisingly suggested that the players were not concerned about life after Brian. On the basis of Saturday, they should be. The former captain was magnificent even by his standards and was the difference between the two sides. He made Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies look like artisans, and his pass to put Simon Zebo over may have been one of the greatest passes in history. Meanwhile, Davies could not hit a barn door with the ball.
If O'Driscoll plays a championship season at this level then he will be indisputably the greatest Irish rugby player of all time. His competitors – Jack Kyle, Tom Kiernan, Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride – finished their careers playing less well than in their pomp. In contrast, the Irish centre makes one believe in 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'.
If O'Driscoll is the thinking man's hero, then Sean O'Brien epitomises the great bluer-collar skills of hard work, courage and commitment. In the first half he carried the ball with scant consideration for his body and in the second half, with Irish backs to the wall, he made an astonishing 23 tackles. It is no longer a question of specialist openside or no, but rather Ireland are now playing without a back-row formation and relying on the heart and skills of the players at 6, 7 and 8. So far it is working.
Saturday proved that this is an Irish team with high morale but the jury is still out. Wales were dire and England will provide a less talented but more focused opposition. They beat Scotland without ever getting out of third gear. The men in blue would have troubled Kidney's team a lot more.
If O'Driscoll set Ireland on their way with that pass to Zebo, his try just after half-time decided the game, and it was typical of the man. He had no business being in a ruck five metres from the line but his passion for hard work had him fighting for the ball on the ground and then his awareness put him over when Welsh players deserted their posts at the ruck.
Only the gifted few would have been at the breakdown and able to sense the space available. That was the last time in the game that Ireland posed an attacking threat and only at the end was the significance of the try understood.
Although the analysis of the Irish players will be universally positive; all was not sweetness and light. Conor Murray looked sharper than for some time but a new challenge awaits in a week's time when he will not have an armchair ride behind a comfortable set-piece.
If Saturday was a battle for the Lions No 15 shirt then Rob Kearney lost out to Leigh Halfpenny. The Irish full-back never dominated from the back and was fortunate that Zebo and Craig Gilroy defended with bravery and aplomb. That said, Gilroy defied his size to make some crucial hits but his kicking out of defence was very poor.
Ireland won but not by the 50 points that seemed likely after 43 minutes. Surely no other team in the championship will give a 27-point start before opening their own challenge? Ireland are overly reliant on their two centres – as soon as Keith Earls arrived, the midfield creaked. Mike Ross is a giant among pygmies and so far irreplaceable. Meanwhile, if Best cannot throw then the line-out becomes a lottery.
Win, lose or draw, from here until St Patrick's Day is going to be fun.