Monday 23 April 2018

Bernard Jackman: Better organised Wales will present the traditional stiff challenge

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

There were questions being asked about Wales and Warren Gatland before this year's Six Nations began. They were coming into the tournament off the back of some losses against Southern Hemisphere opposition in November and had 10 British and Irish Lions players unavailable.

After the opening two rounds, though, there is a spring back in their step. Despite their loss in Twickenham last weekend, they are probably the form team at the moment.

There has been a lot of talk about the disallowed try which proved so costly, and I think that it's great that World Rugby came out and clarified that the TMO had made a mistake and that the try should have stood. It's no consolation to Wales, of course, but at least in doing that it gives us coaches, and fans, better clarity on the laws of the game which are often extremely technical and sometimes hard for the armchair fan to understand.

While the Wales management were angry with the decision they will have moved on from that and their match review will undoubtedly have looked at their handling of the high balls that England used to gain turnovers. The Welsh kicking game under pressure wasn't at the level of accuracy they would expect and they lost some key balls in contact in the scoring zone that let England off the hook at crucial times.

The positives for Wales were that they showed really impressive mental strength and resilience, having gone 12-0 down, to stay in the fight. Their fitness levels and physicality were very impressive and their attacking shape against England - who pride themselves on their defence - was very sharp.

I was lucky enough to be invited to Alun Wyn Jones's testimonial dinner in Cardiff City Hall on Thursday night and he got the turnout he deserves, with a huge amount of current and ex-Wales internationals present. I sense the squad feel they are a team on the up and that if they can get a win in Dublin next Saturday, their bonus point win over Scotland and the losing bonus point in Twickenham will put them right in the hunt for the Championship with the two easiest matches on paper left to play for them.

They won't be afraid of coming to Dublin, that's for sure. Saturday's game will be Warren Gatland's 100th game as Welsh coach which is an incredible achievement. Graham Henry is currently the record holder with 103 matches as head coach for the All Blacks. Warren has been with the Welsh team for 10 years and while he has had sabbaticals for the two Lions tours he led it's still a huge milestone. He has started his build-up to the Rugby World Cup in Japan, which will be his final competition in charge of Wales, and I find it fascinating to see close up the enthusiasm and passion he still has for the job.

Gatland is a deeply competitive man and going into the cauldron that will be the Aviva Stadium won't faze him in the slightest. That inner confidence and knowledge of how to get a team mentally and physically ready has meant that during the course of his reign we have never had it easy against the Welsh. Even when the Welsh regions were struggling, the national side was always there or thereabouts for silverware. Now with Scarlets the reigning Guinness PRO14 champions they have experience of beating Irish teams at domestic level too.

Wales are starting to get some players back too. George North came off the bench in Twickenham and looked very sharp and Liam Williams made a try-scoring return for Saracens on Friday night and should come into the reckoning. Leigh Halfpenny had to pull out on the morning of the game against England but will be fit for selection this week. Jonathan Davies' injury is a big blow but has been reduced by the form and the understanding the other two Scarlets' centres, Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams, have shown.

I expect Joe Schmidt to call on Chris Farrell from Munster as a direct replacement for the unfortunate Robbie Henshaw rather than look at Garry Ringrose, who needs some game time with Leinster first. I worked with Farrell in Grenoble for two seasons and he is an excellent player who defends well but also has a very strong passing game. He performed well alongside Bundee Aki when he got his opportunity in November.

All the vibes coming out of camp about the fitness of Tadhg Furlong have been positive and despite Andrew Porter's obvious potential I think it's crucial that Furlong is fit for Saturday. The Welsh scrum mangled the Scots and were definitely superior to the English, who think of themselves as being the strongest scrummagers in Europe. The all-Scarlets front row of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee are in great form and they will be looking to gain a foothold in the game in this area should Furlong not make it.

Ireland's attacking shape was excellent against Italy. We had much more deception and options around the ball carrier than we had in Paris. Even though our time and space will be reduced by what is a much better organised Welsh defence led by Shaun Edwards, we must look to move the ball to space when the opportunity arises.

We got into an arm wrestle with the French by playing a lot of one-pass plays and we eventually wore them down and their discipline was poor. Wales only conceded two penalties in Twickenham which is very impressive. Ireland and Wales have been the most disciplined sides so far so the need for tries is likely to be even more important than normal. Andy Farrell will be concerned by the try that we conceded in France and the three we took against Italy and he will be conscious too of how Wales are very comfortable playing high tempo and attacking from deep.

I think Ireland will go on to beat England in Twickenham as I think we have the game plan and the skill-set that won't give them soft opportunities for turnovers and counter-attacks which are their primary sources of scores. However, I am concerned about Saturday. There is very little between these two teams and I think the 11-point handicap the bookies are offering is slightly disrespectful to Wales.

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