Friday 30 September 2016

Comment: Creaking Irish scrum hangs on, but six-day turnaround piles pressure on squad

Published 07/02/2016 | 20:21

Jonathan Sexton looks on at scrum time during the 16-16 draw between Wales and Ireland at the Aviva Stadium
Jonathan Sexton looks on at scrum time during the 16-16 draw between Wales and Ireland at the Aviva Stadium

Sometimes the forecasts are off course on every front. This was a better game of rugby than we ever imagined, played in conditions mercifully far better than we had been told to expect.

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And Ireland, the team hobbled by injury, shared the points when Wales had been favoured to come first.

Throughout what was a bruising battle it was hard not to think that Ireland will have to go through all this again in just six days. There were two head injuries – Tommy O’Donnell, who passed the HIA but Schmidt put Rhys Ruddock into the action, and Keith Earls – and Johnny Sexton looked in a bit of pain when he was replaced late in the day by Ian Madigan.

So Joe Schmidt’s medical staff will have their hands full during the week. But at least they’ll be dealing with a group whose spirits should be high. True, they ended up drawing a game they led 13-0 after half an hour, but Wales always looked strong enough to get back into it, even if replacement Rhys Priestland was far below the standard of Dan Biggar in general play. He was good off the tee, but two shanked drop goal attempts were typical of his struggle to get to the pace of the game.

And when Wales did respond they caused Ireland enough grief out wide for it to be an issue. Their use of ‘out the back’ plays was very good – first they would use their sheer size and power to attack close enough to the breakdown, then they would use the second wave to get them an edge and put Ireland into scramble mode.

That Ireland didn’t concede more than one try suggested they were coping well enough, but it put a lot of strain on them – and while the stats said Ireland made 140 tackles to Wales’s 149, it felt like the home side had to work harder in defence. Coping with the physical superiority of the Welsh carriers was enervating stuff.

That power regularly gave Wales better go-forward ball, and when it came their turn to defend they were far better at slowing Ireland’s ruck ball. Referee Jerome Garces gave loads of latitude to the tackled player when another referee would have been blowing for players holding on in the tackle. He was extraordinary lax on dangerous tackles too. He should have given three penalties against Welsh tacklers – Justin Tipuric and replacement Dan Lydiate were obvious offenders – for torpedo tackling. Equally he should have binned Keith Earls for a dangerous – it clearly without malice – tackle on Liam Williams.

Overall Earls was very good in a team where there were a handful of outstanding performers. CJ Stander did brilliantly on his debut, and earned his man of the match award the hard way. Jack McGrath wasn’t far behind him – the loose head’s work rate in every game is remarkable.

McGrath had his hands full at the scrum too. By half time Ireland were struggling at the scrum, and you feared it would decide the game. They hung in there however, even if it was that platform that Wales used to score their only try, through the excellent Taulupe Faletau. They’ll have another full on battle in that area in Paris on Saturday.

The short turnaround means they’re at an immediate disadvantage, but they can take lots of positives from this game.

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