Wednesday 21 March 2018

Schmidt draws comfort as new faces step up

Ireland 16 Wales 16

Conor Murray races out in an attempt to block Rhys Priestland’s late drop goal which sailed wide. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray races out in an attempt to block Rhys Priestland’s late drop goal which sailed wide. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It's probably just as well that Ireland have a quick turnaround as they go into game two against France on Saturday, because this draw with Wales is one they will struggle to get their head around.

Was it a good or a bad result?

Certainly, Warren Gatland was left dissatisfied by his side's failure to hold on after coming from 13-0 down to lead 16-13 and then their inability to make their territorial advantage in the closing minutes count as Rhys Priestland missed a drop-goal.

Joe Schmidt? Well, the Ireland coach was "encouraged" and "comforted" by the performance of his team, but disappointed that they couldn't get over the line.

Captain Rory Best accepted that result was strange, but described himself as "reasonably happy". Even a taciturn Gatland accepted it was probably a fair result.

It keeps both teams alive in the race for the title, but denies them a Triple Crown and a Grand Slam.

Conor Murray races out in an attempt to block Rhys Priestland’s late drop goal which sailed wide. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray races out in an attempt to block Rhys Priestland’s late drop goal which sailed wide. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is substituted late in the game. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland's Andrew Trimble is tackled by Tom James. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Taulupe Faletau, Wales, takes possession from a lineout. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, fails to evade a tackle from Justin Tipuric, Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile


From an Irish perspective, there was comfort in the performance given that eight front-liners from last season were marked absent and the uncertainty around those selected to replace them.

"It's comforting because you're not quite sure how you're going to go," Schmidt said. "It is a new level, some of them have dipped their toe in. . . CJ (Stander) hadn't but he acquitted himself so well.

"There were some encouraging things, but the feeling in the dressing-room was a little bit deflated and a little bit cognisant that we have to improve further and that's going to be a challenge because I think we performed really well today.

"There was a lot of times that we have had a really good, experienced core available and not put the first 30 minutes together as well of that. There's a hint of positivity there, now let's consolidate that."

That opening period was as encouraging as any under the New Zealander as Ireland began playing with a ferocious tempo and quickly took Wales through a 19-phase defensive set that tested the visiting defence's mettle early on. It began with a Simon Zebo half-break, followed by Johnny Sexton scorching clear of the defence and then Stander took it up the guts.

Wales held their line, but Jon Davies strayed offside to allow Sexton (below) to open the scoring from the tee.

It was the kind of start an uncertain crowd needed to get behind the team and Ireland followed it by resisting a long series of Welsh assaults after Dan Biggar claimed his own kick over Zebo and Alun-Wyn Jones threw a beautiful long pass that got George North going forward.

The champions looked vulnerable out wide and Keith Earls did well to halt Liam Williams - a late call-up for the injured Gareth Anscombe - before Gareth Davies knocked on and Ireland cleared their lines.

They doubled down on that morale-boosting hold-out by adding a second penalty as Williams strayed offside after a strong Robbie Henshaw carry and Sexton knocked the ball over.

Despite the strong start, Ireland were being undermined at the scrum and got off the hook when Biggar missed a penalty. He wasn't helped by a dodgy ankle that forced him off minutes later and Rhys Priestland made two key errors in his first two involvements that led to the hosts' first try.

First, he knocked on on the edge of Ireland's '22', allowing Tommy O'Donnell to hack the ball on and Sexton ripped the ball from Gareth Davies' hands. Henshaw kicked in behind and Devin Toner charged down the scrum-half's box-kick, before Priestland kicked it out instead of touching down.

From the lineout, a lovely peel-move saw Stander carry to the line, O'Donnell got closer and Stander got up again and carried over. The ball was held up, but from the scrum Conor Murray wasn't going to be denied and he forced his way over. Sexton convewhtierrted and Ireland led 13-0, but they couldn't sustain their low error count as Murray kicked the ball out on the full and Zebo missed Williams under a high ball.

Most worrying was the scrum and, eventually, the pressure from an illegal-looking Rob Evans told on Nathan White. A smart Jon Davies chip meant Andrew Trimble had to carry the ball over their own line and touch down. The scrum collapsed, Ireland resisted the advantage but after another penalty and scrum, Taulupe Faletau crashed over from the base of another advancing shove.

Priestland missed a drop-goal attempt as Wales continued to dominate after the interval, but made no mistake when handed a penalty by O'Donnell, who ignored two warnings from the referee to stop playing the ball.

Having seen their healthy lead evaporate, Ireland upped the pace once more and played some nice rugby in the third quarter without ever threatening the try-line. Jared Payne's outside break and off-load saw them surge into enemy territory, but the attack was thwarted by a deliberate knock-on by Priestland that was only punished with a penalty.


Best turned down the points, going for the corner and Ireland worked their way in close only for White to have the ball stripped from his grasp brilliantly by Jon Davies.

Still, Ireland came. Zebo punished a poor kick-chase with an incisive surge into the '22', but Stander made one carry too many with a host of backs screaming for the ball and knocked on.

Zebo, whose performance was veering from sublime to ridiculous within seconds, knocked on when he had Henshaw inside him, while a cleverly worked Sexton outside break came to nothing when Tom James shepherded Trimble into touch.

Instead, it was Wales who would strike for home with a Priestland penalty. Ireland had just survived a 28-phase defensive set through Heaslip's turnover, but Jack McGrath held on and the replacement slotted the penalty.

With eight minutes remaining, Ireland went in search of a leveller and were handed it by a needless penalty from Tomas Francis. Sexton stepped up and delivered, but there was still time for Priestland to miss a drop-goal attempt and Ireland to go in search of a winner during a breathless final series.

Murray put an end to all of that and the draw was confirmed. Not the result anyone wanted, but one they'll take.

IRELAND - S Zebo; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls (D Kearney 72); J Sexton (I Madigan 76), C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (S Cronin 76), N White (T Furlong 64); D Toner, M McCarthy (D Ryan 64); CJ Stander, T O'Donnell (R Ruddock 49), J Heaslip.

WALES - Liam Williams; G North, J Davies, J Roberts, T James; D Biggar (R Priestland 22), G Davies (Lloyd Williams 53); R Evans (G Jenkins 53), S Baldwin (K Owens 64), S Lee (T Francis 58); L Charteris (B Davies 62), AW Jones; S Warburton (capt) (D Lydiate 73), J Tipuric, T Faletau.

Ref - J Garces (France)

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