Tuesday 28 March 2017

Irish must not be taken in by Welsh charm

Apparently there is a train of thought that either Wales will sneak it or Ireland will run riot at Croke Park this afternoon. Forgive my scepticism -- and much though I would clearly wish the latter did materialise -- this match, the 115th between the countries, has danger written all over.

The Welsh charm offensive in recent days is in stark contrast to the rabid ramblings of their head coach a year ago.

This time it is the Irish -- not the players or management I might add -- deemed the aggressors in threatening the entente cordiale between Celtic cousins, for whom mutual respect has always been a given in a great rugby rivalry.

As with Irish defence coach Les Kiss, when asked to assess today's opposition, I cannot see Wales changing tack now. I am not by any means a fan of Warren Gatland, but I do admire the way in which he sets out his stall.

What we could do without is the lack of grace and humility in defeat. I was in Cardiff for the game against the French a fortnight ago, where in my view the better team over the course of the 80 minutes won, and Gatland's moan about "one team playing the rugby" was disingenuous and ungracious in the extreme.

Gatland and 'master of the blitz defence' Shaun Edwards know, as well as any, that intercept tries don't just happen by chance. Of course there is misjudgement on the part of the passer, but equally it takes well-organised, measured defensive judgement to leave the predetermined line and act on a possibility.

Pressure

Undoubtedly, Shane Williams did force the pass when under pressure, leading to Francois Trinh-Duc's intercept try coming up to the break, but to suggest that it was all down to pure French opportunism is beyond the realms of rational reality.

There are many ways to skin a cat. Right now, the French operate rugby's version of the full-court press better than most and as well as any -- the Springboks included. The quality of defending in the opening half at the Millennium Stadium was top-notch. Whether with or without the ball, the French were in control of the match.

Full credit to the Welsh for the turnaround after the break. I love their style.

However, Gatland and Edwards know full well the benefit of the rush defence. Far from dismissing it by way of negative post-match innuendo -- "we played all the rugby" -- they should have acknowledged the French rush defence for the central part it played in determining the result.

I emphasise the point again now because if Ireland learnt one thing from Paris -- where they were faced by France's aggressive gain-line defence -- it was the need for greater accuracy under pressure.

Easier said than done, I know, but the proof of the pudding, and lesson taken on board, was in the Twickenham eating. And if ever there was a case for a repeat formula and performance, it is now.

In Lee Byrne, Leigh Halfpenny and the electric Williams, Wales have the cutting edge and all-important inside ability (not least in the vastly under-rated James Hook) to set them free. Forgive the overly simplistic comparison, but Ireland must look to replicate today in Dublin what France did to Wales.

Rest assured, the visitors are acutely aware of Brian O'Driscoll's intuitive ability to jump the line. It is high-risk, but in the case of our talisman, nine times out of 10 it works by way of man-and-ball tackle or intercept and breakaway. How Stephen Jones, Jamie Roberts and Hook read it with ball in hand will be critical.

The reality of the modern game is that defence dominates. However, in one key respect, it remains the same now as ever it was: no ball, no game.

And here Ireland could have a distinct advantage, although the return of Lions hooker Matthew Rees provides a timely boost to the under-firing Welsh line-out.

It is no state secret that the Irish front-row as a scrummaging unit is still not where Declan Kidney nor Gert Small would want it. Gatland is fully aware of that. So where red will target green come scrum time, green will target red out of touch.

Rees and recalled No 8 Gareth Delve will make a difference at the breakdown. In individual and unit terms, it is up front where this game most probably will be won and lost.

Romantic

Give me the battle of the Ospreys, Williams on Tommy Bowe, or battle of the Lions cubs, Halfpenny on Keith Earls, any time, but the reality is of grunt over craft and full-blown defence over attack.

So, what can we expect? Well much though I would wallow in humble pie by way of an Irish runaway victory, this smacks of one set for the wire.

There is an undercurrent of Welsh frustration at having just one win out of three -- and a hardly convincing one at that. The spin of a being couple of intercepts away from a potential Grand Slam is difficult to take.

The reality is somewhat different, a meeting between two sides for whom winning today is an end -- the only end -- in itself.

Forget Triple Crowns (for Ireland) or World Cups (for both) and concentrate instead on a Welsh team under pressure, should it lose, or an Irish team for whom defeat would undo so much of the Twickenham good.

There is, too, the little matter of Gatland's side being the only Six Nations opponents still to be beaten at Croker.

Incidentally, I agree with Jonathan Thomas' assessment that Croke Park, for all its aesthetic splendour, is nowhere near as intimidating as the old Lansdowne Road when it comes to atmosphere. Given the backdrop to today's game (in which Ireland will be seeking a ninth win in the last 11 meeting with the Welsh) that is no bad thing for Martyn Williams and Co.

Take Wales to perform, but Ireland to win, with Jonny Sexton steering them home.

Irish Independent

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