Monday 16 September 2019

Comment: Ireland need more craft than graft to slay Dragon

True test of attacking credentials awaits as Schmidt's side face their biggest test yet

Joe Schmidt will place much responsibility on the shoulders of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt will place much responsibility on the shoulders of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It has been interesting this week to hear the Ireland coaching team sending their love Rob Howley's way.

Perhaps they are compensating for Sean O'Brien's withering assessment of the Wales attack coach's methods on last summer's Lions tour, maybe they feel they can needle Warren Gatland by bigging up his assistant or maybe they just rate him highly, but the message has been loud and clear.

The transformation of the attacking game across the Irish Sea has been well-documented. Many observers have labelled it a Scarletisation but Ireland have been fixating on Howley.

Whatever the cause, the new dynamic is very much apparent and the team Gatland brings to Dublin are playing the game a different way to the previous iterations which makes them an even more dangerous opponent on paper.

And yet, Ireland may feel they can turn this new strength into a weakness against a team they have struggled to break down in recent seasons.

Defence may yet prove to be Ireland's best form of attack as they look to put scoreboard pressure on Wales and ease their new faces into the biggest game of their careers.

Aggressive linespeed

Andy Farrell's sides always aim to get off the line and into the opposition's face, but last year's game in Cardiff was noteworthy for how Ireland flooded the channels around Dan Biggar with some success.

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The Ospreys out-half is back in the team having missed the opening two games of the Championship with injury and he brings experience, leadership, game-management and aerial ability, among other attributes, to the table.

Yet, he is alone among Scarlets past and present and his ability to click within the evolving game-plan, alongside players who play together so regularly, will be key.

Rhys Patchell didn't enjoy his trip to Twickenham, but is rated as the better ball-player. Unless Wales revert to a more traditional direct game, then Ireland will aim to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Biggar.

If they flood the channels around him, pressurise his pass and get in his face then they'll hope to create indecision and force turnovers.

Ireland scored four tries against Italy from defensive pressure and they will aim for some return on turnover ball again this time around.

They may also look to prevent Wales beating them on the edge by sending midfield shooters up when Wales use their pods of forwards to screen passes back to the wrapping centres in an attempt to put width on the game.

If they can disrupt that flow they'll be in the game.

Convert when through

Obvious, yes, but Ireland must simply take their chances.

Against Wales, they have been guilty of white-line fever on too many occasions - breaking through only to cough up possession, get themselves turned over or fail to spot the space.

Their opponents are masters at the scramble defence and well able to take a clever team penalty, but Ireland must be smart too - realising that the break is only half the battle and finishing it is the key.

Ireland will aim to spend as much time as possible in the Welsh 22, but they will need to leave with points on each occasion. Wales have been the more ruthless team in recent meetings and that has to change.

Get the basics right

This is the biggest game in Andrew Porter's short career and his focus needs to be firmly on the scrum.

Schmidt tried to reapply some pressure on to Scarlets loosehead Rob Evans yesterday when he suggested that his scrummaging might not be totally legal, while Cian Healy was effusive in his praise of the 22-year-old.

"Look, after just over three minutes last weekend Andrew came on to replace Tahdg and did a sterling job, for 76 and a half minutes," Schmidt said.

"So he acquitted himself really well, I know it's not the same level; Rob Evans is a tricky customer, the angles and stepping around, all those will be really good learning experiences for Andrew Porter.

"And they've got to learn somewhere and this is a really good opportunity for him."

Ireland rely on good, clean set-piece ball to thrive and they will need their scrum and lineout to be on the money from the off.

Like any team facing a rookie tighthead, Wales will go after Porter as much as they can. He has the capacity to cope.

Craft over graft

Ireland need to be patient in possession if they are to break Wales down, but they have found the longer they hold the ball the more difficult it can be to score.

Schmidt will undoubtedly have some of his trademark power-plays ready for certain scenarios, but with the Welsh discipline impeccable so far the windows may not appear too often.

Much will fall on the shoulders of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, with Ireland lacking a second play-maker to take the pressure off the half-backs' shoulders.

Their capacity to spot and exploit space will be key.

In November, Ireland's mix of forwards passing and use of Murray as a distributor was a clever way of putting width on the game and, having had some joy against Italy, they need to build more into their attack to crack a very difficult nut.

One-out carries and pick and goes may negate the Welsh line-speed, but it has proven ineffective in the past.

Ireland need to put some wrinkles into their attacking play.

Win the aerial war

Wales have brought in their aerial reserves, with Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams all experienced players who are strong under the dropping ball.

However, if the Welsh discipline is not giving Ireland any ins, they'll turn to their kick and chase game - with Murray and Sexton looking for the back-three players to get up and win their retrievable kicks. This has been an area of considerable strength for Ireland, but Wales have been successful in counteracting it in recent seasons.

If they can break even here and keep their discipline, the home side could struggle for scores.

Ireland need to rule the airwaves to establish the field position they'll need.

Irish Independent

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