Monday 18 December 2017

Reasons to be cheerful in slick show

IT felt a little strange at Croke Park yesterday. Ireland and Wales games in recent times had developed such an edge that, sometimes it seemed as if the fate of the planet depended on the outcome of their annual jousts.

This time there was nothing momentously defining at stake. Welsh pride for sure. And, for Ireland, the imperative to reassert their superiority west of the English Channel at least. They did so, grittily and determinedly.

Wales haven't sparkled in this year's Six Nations, but their idiosyncratic tendencies have added colour to the narrative. In each of their three previous games, they had trailed at half-time and then re-emerged to outscore their opponents in the second half. Yesterday they faced the interval behind by 10 points. A considerable defecit, but not alarmingly so. The game still breathed with life. They would return, breezy and spiky. Nothing seemed surer.

It was significant, too, that they had enjoyed their best spell of the match in the minutes leading up to the break. Their fluid movement and tidy off-loading was a constant menace to the Ireland defence. But defence had been the cornerstone of Ireland's victory in Twickenham two weeks ago. For all their purposeful probing, Wales never came close to breaching the try line. Stephen Jones took three points, Wales trailed by 10 and both teams seemed pleased enough with that outcome.

And, true to character, Wales came back out and took the game to their hosts. Soon they were pushing into Ireland territory, forcing penalties inside the 22, declining easy kicks to put the home team under pressure near their own line. Twice Ireland's scrum looked like folding. It bobbed and buckled like a small boat suddenly caught in choppy waters. A few more metres and they would have been in mortal danger of conceding a penalty try.

But then they managed something that many sharp observers have long believed to be beyond them: the perfect scrum. The front-row executed a forward push with judicious timing, Jamie Heaslip stole possession and, when the ball came back to Jonathan Sexton, the out-half thundered his best kick of the game deep into the Welsh half, and the stadium erupted with a mixture of relief and defiance. To a man they appreciated the significance of the moment.

"A big turning point alright," agreed Declan Kidney afterwards. "The front-row were excellent. They showed a lot of resilience." But while resilience can frustrate an opposing team and thieve them of momentum it cannot, on its own, win games. What decides games, more than anything in the modern era, is discipline and Warren Gatland will be tearing his hair out at the stupidity he witnessed from his side yesterday.

If we've learned anything in this championship, it is the high cost incurred in the amassing of yellow cards. Ireland learned it to their cost when Cian Healy was sin-binned early in Paris. And when Lee Byrne stupidly prevented Tomas O'Leary from taking a quick penalty inside the Ireland 22 in the 24th minute, Ireland gleefully exploited the gaps in a Welsh defence shorn of its full-back. In Byrne's absence Ireland put 10 points on the board, an exact replica of what France did to Ireland with Healy watching from the sideline.

And why, you wondered, was South African referee Craig Joubert so lenient towards Byrne when the full-back transgressed again 10 minutes into the second half? This time Byrne was under pressure inside his own 22 and, with Keith Earls bearing down, Byrne tossed the ball into the crowd and thus prevented the opportunity of a quick throw. Joubert awarded a penalty to Ireland but took no further action, an act of mercy towards the Welsh that might have saved them from a slaughter.

So Ireland did what they had to do. They sauntered to a comfortable victory and kept the championship open with the possibility of the French slipping up either when Italy visit the Stade de France today or, more likely, when they host England six days from now. Losing the championship, as seems certain, won't seem like a bind, though.

Not when the team looks to be developing along the right lines and a World Cup in New Zealand begins to loom on the horizon. And another Triple Crown would give them something tangible to show for it anyway. Kidney's public pronouncements would never extend beyond the immediate game, of course, but you can be certain Ireland's coach has one eye firmly fixed on the World Cup.

So he will have left Croke Park yesterday with much to enthuse about. For sure there is an issue with front-row cover, but tell Kidney something he doesn't know. Wales badly missed Gethin Jenkins, but the Ireland front-row stood up manfully against the pressure that was exerted on them.

You couldn't say that Ireland are spoiled for choice behind the scrum, but they look secure enough. There will be concern that another injury, this time to Gordon D'Arcy, forced Kidney into another round of sweeping changes in the back line, but Ireland lost no discernible rhythm because of it, and it had the benefit of releasing Keith Earls to the centre, which many feel to be his spiritual home.

Wing or centre, though, Earls continues to announce himself as a player of considerable talent. His two tries were superb executions that entailed a mixture of pace to take him free of the chasing pack and power to get him over the line as defenders raced across to prevent him from touching down.

His most memorable moment came in the first half, however, when he controlled an errant pass with his boot and set Ireland on an attack that looked certain to end in a score until Rob Kearney's control let him down. It wasn't a perfect Ireland performance, but it was good enough. In a way, Sexton defined it. The out-half was marvellous with the ball in his hand, consistently riding tackles to keep the ball alive and his team on the front foot.

His kicking let him down, though, and he will have been disappointed by that. Then four minutes from time, Sexton took a pass maybe 40 metres out from goal and struck his drop-goal attempt beautifully between posts. He looked up long enough to see it was going over, raised his hand in the air and strode triumphantly back to his own half.

It was that kind of day. Not perfect, but enough good things to keep a smile on Irish faces.

Sunday Independent

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