Tuesday 21 February 2017

Welsh kick themselves as they fail to kick for home

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

Jonathan Davies hands off CJ Stander. Photo: Getty
Jonathan Davies hands off CJ Stander. Photo: Getty

"Is it fair to call it a draw?" Jamie Roberts sucks in the unanswerable question with all the intensity of one squeezing the last puff from an embering Woodbine.

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His coach has wheeled out the old adage of the stalemate being akin to "kissing your sister"; Warren Gatland may have felt like kicking her instead.

It is the prerogative of the combatants to clamber for claims of superiority in situations like these; an objective view would clearly label Ireland the happier of the two camps; then again neither side did enough to utterly justify the win.

Wales, despite the obligatory slow rise from the starting blocks when the pistol reported, were the closest to the tape as the race entered the final few strides.

They had the possession and thus the opportunity to determine position with four minutes left; they did neither and allowed Ireland to sneak a result they themselves were not ecstatic about after being in control for much of the piece.

"I'm not too sure," Roberts responds to his own rhetorical question. "Ireland have come out of the blocks quicker than us, they played far better than us in the opening 20. We've done very well to come back into it.

Jonathan Davies hands off CJ Stander. Photo: Getty
Jonathan Davies hands off CJ Stander. Photo: Getty

Gifted

"And on 76 minutes, we've got the game won. We've exited poorly and ultimately that has gifted them three points. If that ball ends up in the Irish 22, it's game over. So that's disappointing.

"You look at big moments in games and we will look back at that and kick ourselves really that we didn't go on to win that game.

"But you have to credit Ireland, they attacked well and defended with width, they held their line well and we chucked an awful lot at them. And vice versa, we defended magnificently at times, they never cut us open. It was a good Test match."

That it was; far from Warrenball versus "kick-and-chase", both sides eagerly tried to put width on the game and it was not a lack of intent which let the teams down, rather lack of quality, allied to stern defence.

If Wales managed the front end of the game poorly, they bookended their afternoon in replica. In both passages, they spurned gilt-edged overlaps and, even after Jonathan Sexton's brave late leveller, they had possession - and position - once more.

However, for the second time this weekend, a Six Nations team managed to display incompetence in apprising a drop-goal situation.

In contrast to Italy, for whom procrastination was predicated upon a cowardly out-half, Wales were the opposite, rushing their attempt through the over-anxious replacement ten, Rhys Priestland, whose side had many more phases and minutes on the clock than they perhaps thought.

It summed up an afternoon, for both sides, where good intentions were mocked often by poor execution and rustiness; at least, when the clock went red, both sides played for the win, rather than hacking the ball into the Dodder.

"Our job is to try to put us on the front foot and then that is a job for the half-backs," muses Roberts. "If it sails over, it's a great drop-goal. That's how ruthless it can be. He has had a pop. I've played in games when tens have been afraid to have a pop so fair play to him for having a go.

"It was a physical game with a high 'ball in play' time, upper 30 minutes."

He could have added that there were, extraordinarily, 317 tackles in the match, almost shared equally between the pair.

"The lungs were certainly burning at the end and that is a credit to both sides, it was a tough, tough Test match. And it was great to see guys trying to take the result at the end, not kicking the ball out. Both sides desperately wanted the result."

For all that Ireland were indisposed by so many absentees, Wales had their problems too; Gareth Anscombe's late withdrawal shocked nobody from the Valleys. Nor, indeed, Joe Schmidt.

Liam Williams had been deputised to replace him from some distance out; out-half Dan Biggar's snapped ankle in the first play - in a collision with his opposite number - was arguably more pivotal.

"It's tough," avers Roberts. "Rhys came on and controlled the game well, he kicked the ball well and showed good composure but he has that experience. Liam Williams played well considering he has had only 60 minutes of rugby since the World Cup.

"We're about strength of depth, whoever comes in knows they have to do a job, and both of them did."

Welsh captain Sam Warburton reflected upon another slumbering start in Dublin.

"It was pretty similar to two years ago when Ireland also came out very well, and the time before that," said the flanker.

"The positive from our point of view was that we did not let them run away with the game like they did back then. That was one of the worst international performances I've ever been involved in. This was different."

Carelessly

All of which means neither of this side can win a Grand Slam or a Triple Crown; already two trophies have been carelessly left behind but the championship remains firmly within reach.

Given that both these sides will improve from this outing, Dublin may have been the start of the journey for the ultimate winner.

"I guess if we were in a position with three away games coming up after drawing the first game you'd be a lot more worried I guess," adds Warburton.

"But we have got three home games out of four. But they are now all must-win matches and we have to get a big scalp somewhere down the line as well."

Dr Roberts agreed with his captain's early diagnosis.

"We won a championship in 2013 after losing a game and we all know what happened last year when teams dropped a game. So the championship is wide open."

An uncertain result prompting more uncertainty.

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