Tuesday 24 October 2017

George Hook: Set-piece platform put victory on a plate for Ireland

Despite our scrum, we had too much power for a dismal Wales, says George Hook

D espite easily losing the possession and territory statistics, Ireland strolled to a clinical victory over a deeply disappointing Wales in Croke Park yesterday. Warren Gatland's side, albeit weakened up front by injury, were bereft of defensive organisation and morale.

Ireland's tries came from defensive lapses and Lee Byrne was a contributor to almost half the Irish points total by a crass obstruction at the ruck which led to a yellow card and an even sillier throw-away of the ball after he had gained the sanctuary of the touchline.

Morale is at the root of the Welsh problem. Byrne's indiscretions, Andy Powell's escapade with a golf buggy and the yellow cards for Alun Wyn Jones are clear indications of problems within the camp. Italy next week could be a watershed for Gatland.

The Wales lineout was a disaster area. Ireland used the set-piece to launch every meaningful attack, while Wales never looked secure in that area. Jonathan Sexton had the luxury of planning his next move off the throw while Stephen Jones must have prayed for a ball of any kind to bring his backs in to the action. The lineout coupled with clinical efficiency in possession was the difference between the two sides.

Tomas O'Leary was magnificent as he enjoyed an armchair ride behind his pack. Unlike Paris, Ireland consistently went forward and O'Leary and David Wallace were the prime beneficiaries. For the first time in this championship, the openside flanker had go-forward ball and he dominated his immediate opponent Martyn Williams, who looks a shadow of his former self.

The Irish scrum-half continues to box-kick badly and his passing weakness was disguised by his running and defensive qualities. He saved a certain try when his decision to take the penalty quickly to give Keith Earls the score had a semblance of organisation rather than the panic of Paris.

All week rumours abounded that Paddy O'Brien, the International Board's referee director, had attempted to apply a new interpretation to the tackle law which would have created a more southern hemisphere-style of rugby. Yesterday, referee Craig Joubert rarely allowed any contest at the breakdown and whistled incessantly. Ireland were lucky not to receive a yellow card as Joubert warned Brian O'Driscoll more than once.

After the game, the captain appeared to confirm the suspicions of a change in interpretation. It was an outrageous intervention by the IRB in the middle of a championship.

The Welsh defence looked porous from the start and in a tribute to the pre-match video analysis, Sexton consistently looked inside rather than out for support. Not since Moses at the Red Sea did a gap appear as big as that which confronted Tommy Bowe when he carved his way through after 20 minutes from a straightforward inside pass from the out-half. O'Leary's try was simplicity itself as, once more, the red shirts went missing on the fringes of the maul.

Sexton had another bad day with placed ball but he brings elements to the Irish backline that Ronan O'Gara does not offer. Kidney is now faced with a clear choice. The youngster strengthens the midfield defence and threatens defenders at the gain line. On the other hand, one has to feel that the Munster man would have had a higher return from the boot.

Ireland have scored six tries in two games while working off a minority of possession and gained victories. Conversely, the margins of victory could have been greater if the kicks had been successful. The issue will come to a head when the team loses because of missed opportunities from penalties. The injury to Gordon D'Arcy brought Rob Kearney on to the pitch but, astonishingly, Declan Kidney put Geordan Murphy on the wing rather than the substitute. Murphy, who had

demonstrated outstanding counter-attacking skills in Twickenham, was sent to isolation as Kearney returned to the kick-and-chase game that is his trademark. However, this Ireland team needs more creativity at the back. Kearney also looked distinctly short of match fitness.

Sadly, on a good day for Ireland, there was a staggering indictment of the Irish scrum after 45 minutes when Wales turned down a kick when a certain three points were on offer and opted for a scrum. It was irrelevant that, at the third time of asking, the Irish scrum triumphed; rather more damaging was that the visitors treated the home scrum with such disrespect. The word is out in the world of rugby -- the Irish scrum is sub-standard.

Between 1948 and 1996, Ireland won just eight games out of 24 at home against Wales. Since then, Ireland have triumphed in seven of the nine games played. Wales and Ireland are at very different stages of the development of the game. Kidney's triumph has been to bring the team forward while successive Kiwi coaches have overseen a gradual but discernable decline in Welsh standards.

It bears repeating that it is the Irish provincial system that is at the root of its success. The great club sides of Wales have morphed into unrecognisable organisations that generate neither support nor loyalty. Long may it continue.

Sunday Independent

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