Tuesday 20 February 2018

Cultured dismantling of scatty Welsh was a no-brainer

Tommy Conlon

For a sport so much predicated on physical power, yesterday's game was a lesson in the importance of brain power too.

This is an Irish team that operates with a high level of collective intelligence; this is not a very smart Welsh team.

If any side should have been vigilant, to the point of paranoia, about the need to avoid yellow cards, it was yesterday's visitors to Croke Park. The sin-binning of Alun Wyn Jones against England cost his side 17 points, earned him a public dressing down from his coach, and the wrath of the Welsh rugby nation.

Yesterday full-back Lee Byrne saw yellow for an act that the referee described as "deliberate and cynical" and his team shipped two tries while he was cooling off in the bin.

Six minutes into the second half the Welsh on-field brains trust decided to forego a handy three points from a penalty for a series of scrums that never looked likely to yield the seven they gambled on reaping. They were only 10 points down at the time. Eight minutes later, and now trailing by 13, they took the three points they'd hitherto considered inadequate to their needs.

Ireland by contrast have the look of a team that knows what it wants to do at all times -- then calmly goes about doing it. The decision-making on the hoof is reassuringly sensible, pragmatic and consistent.

They have evolved into a methodical, strategic outfit that knows it has the ability to take chances when they arise. They have become a contain-and-counter team. They can absorb long periods of pressure without the ball, long periods of time in their own half of the field. And when the counter comes, they are clinical.

Yesterday's was a controlled, self-contained performance. It wasn't a blood-and-thunder destruction of Wales; it was a slow-burning, low-key display punctuated by intermittent thrusts that were executed all the way to the try line.

And as usual they had done their homework on the opposition lineout, beginning the undermining process by stealing possession on the Welsh throw and sowing the first seeds of doubt in the visitors.

The priority for Wales, as their coach admitted before the game, was a solid first 40 minutes, something that had been beyond them in their previous Six Nations games this season. "We've been making it difficult for ourselves in that first 40," said Warren Gatland. "We've got to make sure that in the second half we're not having to play catch-up by shooting ourselves in the foot and giving away intercept passes and stupid penalties."

They avoided the intercept passes but Byrne took a double-barrelled shotgun to his foot anyway and inflicted serious damage to Gatland's plans.

Tomas O'Leary is young but he can think his way through a game too, just like his veteran Munster mentors such as Paul O'Connell and David Wallace. With Byrne in the bin, O'Leary's quick tap went to O'Connell and onto Brian O'Driscoll -- both of whom had scented the opportunity for a strike as soon as the referee had blown his whistle for the penalty. Keith Earls was over before Wales knew what was happening.

Four minutes later O'Connell was offloading out of the tackle and O'Leary was haring for the line for a second try. It was almost too easy. Wales looked lost.

This Irish habit of soaking up opposition pressure may come back to undo them some day, and in the third quarter it veered suspiciously close to taking their foot off the pedal. One way or another, instead of going for the knockout blow they ended up back on the ropes, absorbing almost complete Wales possession and obviously feeling they could cope with what was coming their way.

They know themselves better than anyone else because when Wales rejected that penalty chance for a series of scrums, the Irish players dealt comfortably with the situation before eventually turning the final scrum, grabbing the ball and clearing downfield.

Then, typically, on their first venture deep into Welsh territory in that second half, they came away with points from the boot of Jonathan Sexton. At this stage

they were looking like a team content to keep an inferior opponent at arm's length, save for occasional, but heavy, punches when the chance arose.

And on the hour another chance did arise, again engineered through the quick thinking and even quicker feet of O'Leary. A one-two with O'Driscoll, a slash through the cover and a feed to Earls, who has the burning pace of all top finishers. Twenty minutes remained at this point but the game was now a balloon with the air slowly hissing out of it, deflating by the minute as Ireland slowed down the action, played the clock and continued to keep Wales easily at bay.

This was a very efficient performance. No frills, no drama, just a bunch of men at work who right now are on top of their jobs. It wasn't a ceremonial display to mark the centenary of caps for O'Driscoll, but he wouldn't have cared one whit anyway, just so long as they got the business done.

A try for him would have been nice; it would have been nicer too if he'd managed to get through it without taking the usual punishment to his body. But of course he didn't: he wouldn't have had that particular reality any other way either.


Sunday Independent

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