Ghost of the past haunts Ireland
Published 10/10/2011 | 05:00
AN Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar ... the Welshman is still in New Zealand.
Ah yes, a joke for every occasion and Wellington, which all week had lived up to its reputation for wet and windy weather, seemed to be having a laugh at Ireland's expense yesterday also. The day after the Irish went out, the sun came out. It was as though the city (where Ireland have played five Test matches and lost them all) wanted to have a final, mocking swipe at Irish aspiration.
Three of those Wellington defeats were against the All Blacks on summer tours, two were against Wales in the World Cup -- and Saturday's 22-10 loss was easily the most painful of the lot. As was mentioned in the build-up, raised expectations make disappointment all the more acute and the overriding feeling after this loss to the Welsh is of an opportunity lost.
Wales are a bloody good team, but that serves as no consolation, and everyone struggled to put words on it in the aftermath (everyone Irish, that is) not least coach Declan Kidney.
"There are a lot of different feelings," said Kidney. "The players, I know how hard they worked to get here. To come up short, to be going home knowing there's two weeks left in the competition...
"You put so much in to it, you want to be there right to the end, but now we have to go home. How do you try and sum that up in words?
"It's just disappointing. We're very disappointed for everybody at home. You don't put your heart and soul into something... we've always treated each day as it comes, let's treat today for what it is.
"I think our last match (this season) is June 23, so there's a lot to be done. Like everything else in life, we have to pick ourselves up."
Across the way, Wales coach Warren Gatland, naturally lugubrious in public, was struggling to contain his elation. The Kiwi's stock is now ridiculously high and he has been linked with the All Blacks job after Graham Henry. When asked about his future, Gatland could not resist a smile when replying: "My future, if I don't get the sack, is with Wales until 2015."
Gatland, of course, knows all about getting the sack from his time with Ireland. Yes, that's right folks, we're the geniuses that didn't think Gatland was up to the job in 2001, even though he had coached Ireland to beat a superb English side and given the All Blacks the game of their lives in the weeks before his departure.
Gatland went off to coach Wasps, where he picked up three Premierships, as well as Challenge Cup and Heineken Cup titles; he then went back to New Zealand where he landed the NPC title with his native Waikato. He took over as Wales coach after their disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign and steered them to the Grand Slam in his first season, and now he has taken them to the last four of the World Cup for the first time since 1987.
It is almost as though everything Gatland has achieved since has been two fingers to his IRFU sackers, and matches against Ireland always provide extra motivation for the 48-year-old.
None will have been as sweet as Saturday's victory. Gatland and Kidney have a lot of coaching similarities and (leaving aside from Gatland's dig before the Grand Slam decider two years ago) a lot of respect for each other's coaching abilities.
Both surround themselves with expertise while maintaining a strong overall control and both tend to oversee happy camps, as has been the case at this tournament.
But Gatland won the coaching battle hands down on Saturday, in build-up, thought and deed.
Softly, softly ...
It is not scientific, but Ireland, particularly under Kidney, are a team that plays on emotion -- using psychological motivation to complement hard work and ability. Against Australia, it was the Wallabies' complacency, an awful August, Jerry Flannery's injury and widespread dismissal.
However, beating the Australians immediately turned Ireland into World Cup contenders and they were expected to reach their first semi-final by beating a Welsh side that was deemed to be talented but too callow.
It meant Ireland did not have the feral edge that served them so well three weeks previously.
After losing narrowly to South Africa, Wales made their way into the knockout stages without commanding too much attention, were careful not to talk themselves up and arrived in Wellington deliberately trying to give off a 'happy to be here' vibe.
Gatland played his part. Ireland were desperate for the Kiwi to lob in a verbal grenade a la 2009, but when he faced the microphones, Gatland took a leaf out of Kidney's book and was diplomacy personified -- denying the Irish any chip-on-the-shoulder motivation.
As Gatland has learned, sometimes you say it best when you say nothing at all.
The young and the restless
Wales made two substitutions on Saturday. One, Bradley Davies for Luke Charteris, was forced upon them by injury; the other (James Hook) was incidental, after the game had been won.
Leaving Hook out was a big call, as was starting without other experienced Grand Slammers such as Stephen Jones and Ryan Jones. Gatland still had experience in key positions, but he was willing to invest in youth around them and Wales played with the fearlessness of the young, while Ireland, carrying a host of players who knew this was their last shot at the World Cup, looked uncertain by comparison.
That is not to say Kidney's selection was flawed, just that his men were older and Gatland's trust in youth was repaid handsomely as players who routinely lose to the Irish at club level -- not least his Newport-Gwent Dragons contingent -- played with no fear of failure.
It seemed like a day set up for cup rugby, the type of pragmatic play that served Munster so well over the years with Ronan O'Gara calling the shots.
Gatland knew the out-half could kill Welsh momentum by pinning his side back and ensured that his back three were deep and prepared for the kicks that came their way -- all three had big games, none more so than full-back Leigh Halfpenny who was in ahead of Hook.
He also switched his wingers, which denied O'Gara the opportunity of exploiting Tommy Bowe's height superiority over Shane Williams through cross-kicks.
This was hardly a surprise, but the tactic of sending big runners at Ireland's 10-12 channel paid dividends. At one point, Jamie Roberts ran right over the top of Gordon D'Arcy, Jonah Lomu-style, and it generally meant Wales had front-foot ball to work with.
It is a regular bugbear in these pages that Irish players (with notable exceptions like Sean O'Brien) do not run onto the ball from deep, a basic principle of rugby which Wales execute extremely well.
Off first-phase and ruck ball, Wales' alignment gave them time to build up steam and create options.
Ireland were static and lateral by comparison and there were not enough players running cut-backs and angles off the playmakers, which made the Irish easy to predict.
Ireland defence coach Les Kiss had been having a very good tournament, but Saturday was Shaun Edwards' day.
Back in 1995, Simon Geoghegan was the only Irish player capable of stopping Lomu and he did it by mowing him down at the ankles. Edwards saw how Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris had been bumping off would-be tacklers who went in at chest height and instructed his men to go low, with a secondary tackler arriving to prevent offloads.
It worked a gem and Ireland had no Plan B, which should have involved using Ferris and O'Brien as decoys and skipping to Heaslip. The Welsh defence was excellent, with Shane Williams stopping O'Brien from scoring a highlight.
Preventing Wales from gaining early impetus was essential to Irish ambition, while Gatland knew that if his tyros could score first, they could carry their pool belief through with them.
When Keith Earls, turned over possession shortly after kick-off, the manner in which Wales clinically went through the phases before putting Williams over in the corner was a testament to their coach.
The World Cup does funny things to teams. Ireland, South Africa and England go through their pool matches unbeaten and are sent home early; Wales, France and Australia lose key matches in the pool and go on to make the semi-finals.
It emphasises the importance of peaking at the right time and Gatland got his men at the perfect pitch, while Ireland could not replicate the focus they showed in the wins over Australia and Italy.
The fact the Wales coach did it with a group of players who are routinely dismissed by their Irish counterparts in the European league and cup club competitions makes it all the more impressive.