Saturday 18 November 2017

Biggar - We knew what was coming from Ireland

Welsh coaching masterclass tactically outwits much-vaunted Schmidt set-up

Paul O'Connell, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Wales v Ireland. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Wales v Ireland. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Sam Warburton the captain of Wales celebrates his sides 23-16 victory on a lap of honour

There is a ghost in the machine. The irrepressible Irish feat of technological engineering has spluttered to an undignified halt.

Peter O'Mahony's haunted expression presents merely blanched bemusement. In many ways, his bemused state mirrored his team-mates as they blindly searched for a path beyond a red wall of defence for much of the day.

A scarcely credible third-quarter defensive display from Wales has made the Alamo look like a Sunday picnic in the grounds of Cardiff Castle.

There was a surfeit of madness in Ireland's method of attack, in contrast to Wales, from whom there was so much method in the manic aggression of their astonishing but controlled defence.

By Sunday afternoon, their tackle count has been revised downwards from 289 to 250; still a tournament record. Wales' ceaseless work could never be downgraded.

"We knew exactly where Ireland were coming," revealed out-half Dan Biggar who, for much of the piece, was desperately trying to hide himself from one wing to the other, a stinger following his tackle on Rob Kearney effectively reducing Wales' defensive ranks by one. No matter; Ireland, devoid of intelligence and leadership, didn't see him, nor their own back three who occupied an overlap for nigh on a minute.

"People see us defending but the amount of analysis and prepping done during the week is endless. We wanted it a fraction more. That showed in those two phases."

As Scott Baldwin avers: "If you see a man on the floor, you get him up. The man beside you is just as tired as you are."

Snaffled

While Ireland lacked conviction throughout, Wales oozed it; they snaffled their only try using an attacking shape that seemed alien to the visitors.

Ireland will defer to the endless statistics that showed how many times they passed the ball; that Paul O'Connell was their most effective line-breaker aptly illustrated the poverty of their play, aside from the raft of recidivist errors.

If Wales sealed the match in that astonishing third quarter, they had launched their effort in the opening one, seizing on the traditional Irish strengths in the air and on the floor.

They compiled a 12-0 lead with disdainful ease.

"That was the winning of the game," confirms Shaun Edwards who, along with the comically derided Warren Gatland, utterly trumped their opponents.

"It was all about heart, effort and showing up," he adds. "I knew that Ireland would change their tactics. They wouldn't play the aerial game.

"And that's what I told the lads, we're going to have to make 150 to 200 tackles. Shows how much I know! But I knew they'd come up at us with ball in hand."

Biggar is a red-blooded ball of bouncing energy compared to O'Mahony, from whom staccato sentences drip.

"Nobody likes losing," he spits.

Ireland's alarming passivity in that opening quarter, when they barely laid a glove on a red jersey in anger, signalled an early malaise.

"I don't think we imposed ourselves, which is disappointing, that's my issue," mutters O'Mahony, also referencing Ireland's utter inability to endear themselves to the pedantic Wayne Barnes.

"We didn't have our hands on the ball for the first 20 minutes and maybe we weren't sticking our tackles. When you don't stick your tackles, a team as big as Wales are going to make yards every time."

Hence, Wales dictated the terms of the contest by dictating the terms of the contact; Welsh tactics were not surprising, but the ease with which they were implemented certainly was.

And the Welsh also, as Biggar hinted, knew that if they dictated the terms of the engagement, Ireland would have to bring something different to the table.

But trying to discover expressionism while wearing a strait-jacket is not a wise foreign policy; it is like asking Jose Carreras to sing karaoke in a Temple Bar pub.

"Shaun spoke about how we had to stop their momentum because once they get that momentum they are a very good side," explains Biggar, who trumped his vaunted opposite number.

"They've obviously got half-backs who are world-class so we managed to just jolt them a bit.

"I thought we started the game superbly. We kicked accurately. We chased well and to go 12-0 up inside 15 minutes was perfect. We didn't do anything flash. We just did the basics well and got our reward."

Punished

O'Mahony was one of those players punished in the opening four breakdown penalties for not rolling away in the tackle.

"It's unlike us," he sighs. "I was certainly one of them. It's just out of character. It's just the way it went."

The breakdown is not just a technical morass that survives upon the whim of a referee; it is a physical battle, too and Wales made sure they were on top here against a worryingly passive Irish.

As with that third-quarter segment, Ireland were constantly knocked back in the tackle as their repetitive one-out, standing-start gambits were eagerly gobbled up by the voracious Welsh.

"They certainly were more physical than us and dominated us around the breakdown and other areas as well," adds O'Mahony.

Edwards distils the issue more eloquently.

"We kept getting off the floor quickly because if you're on the floor you're out of the game in rugby union.

"We got into position very quickly. There's a mental and physical aspect to that as well. Our tackling, in particular our leg chops, were of the highest order."

Eerily, there were echoes here of Wellington and Ireland's World Cup defeat; four years on, Schmidt's men must adapt their game to advance their development.

This could be the fright they needed to do just that.

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