Tuesday 17 September 2019

There may be darker days ahead

Wales 17 Ireland 22

Ireland’s Bundee Aki makes a break during yesterday’s match against Wales in Cardiff. Photo: PA
Ireland’s Bundee Aki makes a break during yesterday’s match against Wales in Cardiff. Photo: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At half-time in the Principality Stadium yesterday there was your standard bit of entertainment featuring punters trying to kick the ball over the bar.

Or something like that. On this occasion it involved kids. At its conclusion the master of ceremonies had a word with the winner. The little interview was going fine until the pay-off question:

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Ireland's Bundee Aki is tackled by Wales' James Davies. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Bundee Aki is tackled by Wales' James Davies. Photo: Sportsfile

"Well young man, who do you want to play for when you grow up?"

"England!" said the kid.

It's the first time we've ever been in this marvellous venue and had the image of WC Fields pop into our heads. For Ireland this was about putting as much distance as possible between what happened against England last weekend and what might unfold at the World Cup. And here was this pesky kid, reminding everyone of the signpost from Twickenham. The differences were that the Ireland forwards had a far more comfortable day at the setpiece, with 10 from 10 at the scrum, which became a very useful penalty generator for them, and six from seven out of touch - an unusually limited window to work off.

This is typical of playing Warren Gatland's Wales; they work hard at keeping the ball on the field.

Ireland's Garry Ringrose on the charge. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Garry Ringrose on the charge. Photo: Sportsfile

But against a moderate Welsh pack the Ireland eight were unable to beat them up. At least not to the point where those out wider could do real damage. The three tries came, in reverse order, from a scrum-driven penalty try and two fine strikes by that remarkable finisher, Jacob Stockdale. Two first half touchdowns, both the product of counter-attacks, put him on 16 tries from 21 Tests.

For all the perspiration however this was laboured and hard to love. The attack doesn't frighten anybody. Rather when the green shirts gather in the opposition 22 there is a fraught feeling of how it will finish. Wales, in contrast, got their two touchdowns from stretching the Irish defence across their goal line, and finding a gap.

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"We didn't feel we were stressed by Ireland's attacking game," Gatland said on the occasion of his last game as Wales coach in Cardiff. "But they defended well and they had an excellent setpiece."

Yes, they did. Neither of which they came close to achieving against England. The most concerning aspect around this squad currently is that they are not filleting anyone through what you might call aggressive choreography. Neither the biff nor the beauty are in attendance.

Ireland's Niall Scannell of Ireland speaks with Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Niall Scannell of Ireland speaks with Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile

So where does that leave Joe Schmidt? He will work his way through the bad news calls today and tomorrow before he presses send on the email with 31 names for the World Cup. It will not be announced to the public until next Sunday, the day after the return leg against Wales, in the Aviva. Both sides will be putting their best foot forward then. Well, those with feet considered neat enough to step out.

That means a run for Johnny Sexton at last. He will be one of three 10s heading to Japan, along with Joey Carbery and yesterday's man of the match, Jack Carty. The Connacht outhalf doesn't look comfortable yet at this level, a reasonable state of affairs for a fella who has worked his way into position rather than one anointed with star quality from way back. On most days this would not have been a man of the match performance.

Injury information is frequently unreliable but if the mood music is right then Carbery's recovery from ankle surgery is bang on track. If the coach, who is reluctant to bring players who are not fit, is happy with that then Carty will go with that pair, and Carbery will be asked to hop in as cover if either Conor Murray or Kieran Marmion are injured.

There is some confusion around how nations might get around the constraints of having just 31 players on the far side of the world. There is no regulation stopping them from planting potential replacements in Japan to at least cut out the jet lag and time travel element elements, but it's a hard trick to pull off from a few perspectives. And in Ireland's case for the provinces at home, who would be asked to do without whoever might be asked to fill such a role, there would be a row.

Ireland players line-up prior to the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland players line-up prior to the game. Photo: Sportsfile

It's understood Ireland - clearly unhappy with the restriction to 31 in the first place, as Schmidt points out now at every opportunity - will not be pulling that stunt.

So there will be quality players left at home. Post-match yesterday Schmidt did his usual dance of pointing out the good, and then immediately the problems with the good, but in the case of Will Addison this is a player hard to resist despite his woeful shortage of match time in this calendar year. He is the most versatile operator in the squad. And he did well yesterday. If Schmidt sticks to his 'five at halfback' plan then Andrew Conway and Addison should both make the cut with Chris Farrell losing out.

The only difficult decisions up front are in the back five. Although we feel Schmidt has been loyal to a handful for too long - primarily Rory Best, Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander - he ain't changing that trend in a hurry. Rather his focus will be to ask himself again if Jean Kleyn is the right man to complete the second row roster alongside James Ryan - who had a huge game yesterday - Devin Toner and Iain Henderson.

Kleyn was hard to spot in Twickenham but Schmidt seems to have made his mind up on this one a long time ago. That means Tadhg Beirne is seen as cover across the back row, and second row if push comes to shove, causing angst for all of Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and Jordi Murphy given that O'Mahony, Stander and Josh van der Flier are immovable.

Schmidt said that the worst day of his professional life as Ireland coach was this time four years ago as he dialled the numbers for delivering bad news.

You'd have thought that Twickenham topped that, but seemingly not. He hasn't long to go so he might want to hold off on naming his nadir. The way this squad are shaping up there look like more dark days ahead.

In the meantime stay away from working with animals or children.

Scorers - Ireland: Stockdale 2 tries, pen try, Carty pen, con (2). Wales: Lane try, Patchell try, con, con, J Evans pen

Wales: H Amos; O Lane, S Williams, O Watkin, S Evans (J Holmes 47); J Evans (R Patchell ht), A Davies (T Williams 47) R Carre (R Evans ht), R Elias, S Lee (L Brown ht, yc 52), A Beard, B Davies (J Ball 47), A Shingler (A Wainwright 63), J Navidi, J Davies (S Lee 52-62)

Ireland: W Addison (G Ringrose 42-52, blood); A Conway, C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale (D Kearney ht); J Carty, K Marmion (L McGrath 60); D Kilcoyne (A Porter HIA 45), N Scannell (R Best 52), J Ryan (T Furlong 52), I Henderson, James Ryan (D Toner 52), T Beirne, J Conan, P O'Mahony (J Murphy 60)

Referee: R Poite (France)

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