Friday 20 April 2018

George Hook: Gambling on two 'crocked' back-rows is a risky ploy

Ireland's Jamie Heaslip
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip
George Hook

George Hook

Ireland's starting XV to play Wales is a contradiction of everything I always presumed to know about modern medicine.

The selection of Jamie Heaslip in the back-row, just three weeks after he was diagnosed with three broken vertebrae in his back, is a miracle worthy of a return from Lourdes.

Heaslip is - according to himself - famous for his healing powers. But if the 31-year-old is indeed fit to start a Six Nations match so soon after serious back injury, he should donate his body to medical science.

Training routines and contact drills are poor substitutions for the rough and tumble of a Championship brawl.

If Heaslip is in any way vulnerable to hard, physical contact at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon, it is difficult to imagine him lasting until the half-time whistle, never mind a full 80 minutes.

Half-eaten

Sean O'Brien is in the same boat. Attempting to recall the last match in which the Tullow Tank remained on the pitch for 80 minutes is like asking a drunk to remember where he left his half-eaten bag of chips on the way home from the pub.

O'Brien's litany of injuries over the last five years makes for grim reading and if he continues to suffer for his art, it is difficult to see him being able to continue in the game.

Two of the three starting players in the Ireland back-row are vulnerable to injury. What happens if Heaslip and O'Brien cry off early?

The primary function of a replacements bench is for tactical substitutions. Injuries will happen in a contact sport, but if the guts of the bench is emptied early on, as enforced cover for the walking wounded, what chance have Ireland of coming away from Cardiff with a win?

Taking a chance on two so recently 'crocked' players is a risky ploy and a surprising move from a notoriously cautious head coach.

Joe Schmidt doesn't need reminding about the importance of winning the back-row battle this afternoon. Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau are the vital mainstays of the Wales pack and if Ireland cannot compete from 6 to 8, they can banish any notion they might have of winning a Grand Slam this year.

Against France in Paris, Wales dominated possession through the work-rate and poaching prowess of their back-row. Warburton, in particular, caused havoc on the ground and if the Irish challenge is loose or out of sync, it is difficult to see the visitors gaining the lion's share of possession.

In this instance, against a hungry and aggressive Wales pack, accommodating injuries for reputation would be suicidal. One can only hope that Heaslip and O'Brien are 100pc fit.

The battle between the New Zealand coaches is intriguing. Schmidt outclassed each of his rivals over the course of the first three rounds, but Wales represents an altogether different challenge.

Of the five competing countries, Warren Gatland's squad are best equipped to deal with Ireland's tactics of aerial bombardment. The back three of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Liam Williams are all masters in the air, so dropping in bombs from the boot of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will not produce the same return as it did against England and France.

In fact, with Dan Biggar's penchant for employing the kick-chase and his success in retrieving possession from it, Ireland may find themselves struggling to deal with a Wales aerial assault.

Schmidt must carve out a different plan. England knew what was coming at the Aviva stadium two weeks ago but were ill-equipped to deal with it. Wales have more than enough talent to defend Ireland's high ball. The visitors need to find an alternate route to victory.

So far, we have yet to see Ireland's backline open up. Schmidt's mantra of error-free rugby has restricted the flow of the three-quarter line, but perhaps this is where Ireland can catch Wales off-guard.

Sexton tends to favour a pass-and-loop ploy, and the same manoeuvre this afternoon might create space for Rob Kearney and the two wings to have a cut.

Wales' blitz defence is effective, but Ireland have the advantage of knowing what to expect. A varied and accurate game-plan from Sexton will be crucial in unlocking space for the Ireland backline to attack.

Familiar

On paper, there is very little to choose between these familiar foes. Ireland's record in Cardiff speaks for itself, with only two defeats on Welsh soil since the mid-90s.

Wales will be physical and aggressive from the off, so if Ireland can stay in Wayne Barnes' good books and curtail Halfpenny's kicks at goal, it will go a long way towards winning the game.

Gatland has always fancied himself as a shrewd operator but this time the former Ireland and Wasps coach is punching above his weight.

Last year Gatland and Wales were humiliated in Dublin. This afternoon, Ireland's greatest weapon will be controlling operations from the comfort of the coaches box.

A Grand Slam beckons if the visitors can negotiate this difficult hurdle.

Over to you, Joe.

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