Sunday 22 September 2019

Train is still on track but Gatland's gripes about lack of ambition may just ring true

Ireland 19 Wales 10

Jack Conan filling a gap at scrum-half. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jack Conan filling a gap at scrum-half. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

We have danced this dance so many times before, but we'll miss Warren Gatland when he is no longer a regular visitor to our shores.

On the eve of this pre-World Cup mini-series between Ireland and Wales, the New Zealander pulled the pin on one of his grenades and lobbed it in the direction of Joe Schmidt and his players.

It would be overplaying the significance of these warm-up fixtures to say it backfired spectacularly, but having explicitly threatened to derail an under-pressure Irish side's World Cup chances, it is fair to suggest that Gatland has been left with some egg on his face.

There might yet be one last chapter in the Kiwi's complicated relationship with this country in Japan.

If things go well for both teams at the World Cup, then they could contest a semi-final in Yokohama and no doubt the Wales coach would have a little more fun before he heads home.

And, while his comments seemed churlish after a beating that wasn't reflected in the 19-10 scoreline, there was an element of truth to his analysis that Schmidt would do well to consider.

Iain Henderson wins possession from a line-out. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Iain Henderson wins possession from a line-out. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Ireland look like a good team when they get things right physically, but their aim in Japan is to become a great team.

It remains to be seen if they've enough to their attacking game to reach that level.

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"I was really pleased with the first half. I thought we were really positive in the way that we played. We spoke at half-time about keeping our discipline so a 10-1 penalty count in the second half was disappointing," Gatland said of the game.

"And Ireland went back to what they are traditionally good at, I think 85 per cent of that second half was just off No 9, off nine, off nine then Bundee Aki was effective in gainline stuff.

James Ryan, bottom right, goes over to score Ireland's third try. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
James Ryan, bottom right, goes over to score Ireland's third try. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

"In the past when we've been successful against Ireland, it's making sure that when they play that way you've got to be a bit more collision-dominant in that area and your discipline needs to be good as well and they were two areas of the game that were a bit disappointing for us.

"I was pleased with our scrum and lineout, they were good, and was pleased with how positive we were, particularly in that first half, but we just didn't have enough territory and possession in that second half.

"They didn't play any expansive rugby at all that troubled us out wide."

Of course, Schmidt could point out that playing off scrum-half is an effective way of negating a team's line-speed and, given the strength of Shaun Edwards' defence, it was a clever ploy to attack in that fashion.

Ireland captain Rory Best, with his children Ben and Penny. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland captain Rory Best, with his children Ben and Penny. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Despite spending much of the first half without the ball, Ireland defended well and played their way into the game; fixing their early lineout issues and building a fine score for Rob Kearney who ended a four-year wait for an international try. Johnny Sexton's intercepted pass cost his side.

Robbie Henshaw wonderfully denied Dan Biggar directly from the incident, but Wales went again and Hadleigh Parkes split the otherwise excellent centres to score.

After half-time, Ireland stepped up their accuracy and efficiency and ground Wales into the ground.

It was effective and it was impressive, but they turned down points at every penalty opportunity and only scored 12 points through Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan, with Johnny Sexton adding one of the two conversions.

If they are to thrive in Japan, they'll need to improve their return from visits to the opposition 22.

After showing something extra in the earliest warm-up against Italy, they appear to have gone back to what they know in the wake of the Twickenham hammering.

Schmidt can point to stats that show nine clean breaks, five offloads and 15 defenders beaten, but he will demand a better scoring return from 63 per cent possession and 67 per cent territory against a team that conceded 12 penalties to his side's six.

The coach was never going to use any of his set-plays to break this game open, they'll be run out in Japan, but he'll demand more innovation in phase-play as the weeks go on. Ireland's bullying style works against most teams, but if they meet a South African team who look in unbelievable physical condition they will need nuance and innovation.

Gatland has his own issues to worry about, but this is a decent place to build from as Schmidt and Ireland board the long flight to Japan.

Ireland - R Kearney; J Larmour, R Henshaw, B Aki, K Earls (G Ringrose 53); J Sexton (J Carty 64), C Murray (L McGrath 72); C Healy (D Kilcoyne h-t), R Best (capt) (S Cronin 53), T Furlong (A Porter 57); J Ryan, J Kleyn (I Henderson 53); CJ Stander, J van der Flier (R Ruddock 59), J Conan.

Wales - L Halfpenny (L Williams 67); G North, J Davies, H Parkes, J Adams; R Patchell (D Biggar 22), T Williams (G Davies 70); W Jones (N Smith 60), E Dee (K Owens 60), T Francis (D Lewis 60); J Ball, AW Jones (capt); A Wainwright, J Tipuric, R Moriarty (J Navidi 60).

Ref - M Raynal (France)

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