Ireland are able to cope with the pressure of being number one in the world
Netflix have a camera crew with each of the teams competing in this season’s Six Nations to produce a behind-the-scenes documentary that will be released later this year. It’s a similar concept to the Formula One series Drive to Survive and the way international coaches have been getting sacked recently maybe the rugby version should be called Coach To Survive.
We have been promised access like never before and I look forward to seeing what was said at half-time in the Welsh dressing-room in Cardiff yesterday. Ireland led by three tries to nil and had taken all hope and optimism out of a Welsh public who hoped the return of Warren Gatland could bring success on the pitch again — and quickly.
Having lost to Italy and Georgia in 2022, Welsh rugby fans have lost faith in their national side and on yesterday’s evidence there will be no quick fix on the field. They did rally in the second half and salvaged a bit of pride, but a scoreline of 34-10 is a fair reflection of the gulf in class between the two sides.
Playing a team with the experience that Wales could select from, with a new coach and away from home, was a potentially dangerous assignment on opening weekend for Ireland. When you add losing one of the best tightheads in the world in the match week and your starting scrumhalf on the morning of the game then doubts can creep in. But there seems to be something different about this Irish team.
Andy Farrell’s squad went to Portugal for a warm weather training camp and went straight from Quinta do Lago to Cardiff. The whole squad travelled, rather than just the match 23 with a couple of travelling reserves as they normally would. Farrell has created a squad culture where everyone puts ego aside and there is a team-first mentality.
Farrell isn’t afraid to make the hard calls on selection either, but isn’t overly concerned with current form. If you have done it for him in the past then he will give you some leeway in terms of international selection.
Players like Bundee Aki, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Cian Healy are great examples of that. Murray got a chance to start yesterday and he moved the ball really well. Ireland had over 70 per cent of their rucks at three seconds or less and while some of that was down to the power of our ball-carriers and cleaners, Murray’s speed to the breakdown and accuracy of pass also played an important role. He was also a threat as a ball-runner when the opportunity arose. He certainly rewarded Farrell for his selection.
The coach has put a huge amount of time into developing leadership and a team that won’t get stressed by the pressure of being number one in the world or suffer from the performance anxiety that apparently led to our underperformance in the last World Cup.
Gary Keegan looks after the mental skills for the squad. He came with a big reputation from his success in other codes, notably boxing, and the feedback from the Irish players of the value he is adding is very positive.
Ireland’s first try came from a lineout that we won deep in the Welsh ’22 after a brilliant kick down the line from James Lowe on the left wing. Ireland’s kick chase pressurised the Welsh exit and Ireland, with so many big powerful ball-carriers in the team, eventually drove Caolan Doris over to draw first blood. Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne, Doris and Josh van der Flier are all big ball-carriers for Ireland and the rest of the pack complement them by being very strong at the set-piece and at the ruck.
We were very accurate in our handling and set-piece work which tested Wales’s discipline and the stats showed that the Welsh had given away nine penalties in the first half alone.
Gatland obviously felt that the way to attack Ireland was through targeting our back three with high, contestable kicking, but we dominated the air. Hugo Keenan was awarded the man of the match and once again he showed why he is now one of the first names on both Leo Cullen’s or Andy Farrell’s team sheet.
Wales did rally after the break and they started to make double tackles and knock the Irish ball-carriers down behind the gain line. Ireland’s discipline became an issue and when Liam Williams scored there was a little glimmer of hope of a big comeback.
However, excellent Irish defence in our ’22 throughout the game, a misfiring Welsh lineout and poor breakdown work allowed us to clear our lines time and time again.
When Sexton departed the field in the closing stages the match was won, but we still had a bonus point to chase and momentum was with Wales. I think it was really important for Ross Byrne and all the other replacements to be able to pick up the pace again in the last ten minutes and create the opportunity for Van der Flier to get a fourth try and the bonus point. Every point could be crucial by the time England visit in round five. Ireland were good value for maximum points.
We will see this afternoon how France are shaping up, but Ireland are definitely in good health and form.
Whether Tadhg Furlong will be fit for Saturday must be a doubt but as Connacht fans have been saying for quite a while now, ‘In Finlay we can trust”. Bealham is one of the most improved players in Irish rugby and we are lucky to be building a bit of depth in this key position.
It was great to see James Ryan playing so well yesterday too and adding that defensive lineout threat to his game which will really have pleased his mentor Paul O’Connell.
We ran France close in Paris last year without an injured Sexton. With Johnny on the field and the improvements that we have made in our game, I think we will have their number this time.