Sunday 17 December 2017

Time to balance the books

The momentum is with Ireland to exact some Croke Park revenge on the Welsh, says Brendan Fanning

S helbourne Hotel, March 8, 2008: it is the night of the Ireland versus Wales Six Nations Championship game and everything about the visitors is happy. Their coach Warren Gatland is the centre of attention. All week the media focus had been on his match-up with Eddie O'Sullivan and their troubled past. It had all gone the way of the Kiwi.

His wife had flown in that morning from New Zealand. She was beaming at the achievement of her husband who had only been appointed to the job before Christmas. And here they were in March with the Triple Crown nailed down and a shot at the Grand Slam coming a week later. They would sort that one too in impressive style.

Every few minutes there would be a deputation of well-wishers to the Gatland table. Had the coach asked them to stand on their heads and perform a party piece, their only question would have been which key. Occasionally in this life things are so good that you want to freeze the moments in time. For Gatland, surely this night would have topped his list.

Earlier that day his team had played pragmatic, sensible rugby. Winning rugby. It didn't have the flamboyance of Wales' Grand Slam three years previously under Mike Ruddock, but it was no less valuable for that. And set against Ireland's effort that day it looked good enough.

It had been a triumph of planning. They recognised the strength of the Irish lineout, or at least Ireland's reliance on that phase as their primary means of go-forward. In the previous three rounds Ireland had thrown to an average of 16 lineouts per game. Wales resolved to keep those opportunities to a minimum.

They succeeded spectacularly. Ireland had a miserly eight lineouts all day, off which only two came from Wales kicking the ball out of play. Gatland's team had had their problems however: twice in the game they had been reduced to 14 men and twice they had changed down the gears and dealt with the climb. They had a net loss of just three points conceded between the two dismissals.

It doesn't often get that good. So you watched Gatland and the Welsh boys that night and wondered what shape they would be in when they came back in 2010.

Wales have suffered badly on the injury front where their pack has been halved in its number of first-choice players and of the remaining 50 per cent, captain Ryan Jones is struggling with a calf injury. By comparison, Ireland are in good nick and the return of Rob Kearney adds to Declan Kidney's options.

Gatland's problems extend beyond the day-to-day stuff of who is fit and who isn't. There is a style of rugby which they call the Welsh Way and it doesn't always coincide with a winning way. The Grand Slam of 2008, for example, wouldn't have satisfied all those style criteria but it was highly effective. We saw it at its most effective in those periods when they had men in the bin. They bored and frustrated their hosts and came through the other side.

Currently, their issues are with intercept passes and how they are being conceded. The three so far in this Championship have rung alarms but the issue goes back over 18 months during which time they have coughed up seven. What we don't understand is how a coach as pragmatic as Gatland, who in his Wasps days put such a premium on quality kicking, has allowed his team wander into parts of town where they know there's a good chance of being mugged. Last week Ireland's Les Kiss was generous in his assessment of his next opponents. Or perhaps he was hoping they will produce more of the same.

"France have said they targeted that (intercept tries) so in hindsight people might feel that," he said. "I don't. I feel they were rightly going to the positions of the park that they should have been going. It's just their execution was just a little bit off there. I don't think they have much cause for concern. You look at the second one there with Trinh-Duc, it was just one of those things. To plan intercepts is an impossible thing but they have had a few, haven't they? It's a little bit unlucky."

No, it's more like persistence with something that's not working. And this seems light years removed from the unity of purpose and focus of the Wales side that saw off Ireland in Croke Park two years ago. The more Gatland and Shaun Edwards bang on about "having a go" and how they can't be accused of being boring, the more it sounds like they're losing control.

The scene in Camp Ireland is almost the polar opposite. Perhaps it was the move to fresh surroundings in Carton House that has given them this Zen-like vibe, but the air of relaxation there last week was striking. Not sleepy, or lazy -- just confident in a quiet way.

Winning at any time in Twickenham is good for the soul. Winning in tight circumstances when you always believed you had more to offer than them is better again.

Jamie Heaslip is as good an example as you'll get in the Ireland team at the minute of a player who is on top of his game and hungry to show it. Teams need to be very good to knock him off his stride.

"When they tried to go wide or go round us a couple of times at the start of the game people probably thought they made some yards on us out wide but they didn't make any inroads on us to be honest and when they did go wide we slowed it down again anyway," he says.

"I didn't really feel threatened by their attack at all. They were very direct but with that kind of team you just probably have to meet them on the gain line. We did that. We were pretty successful in choking the ball and slowing it down."

Against Wales, Heaslip may have to deal with the ball-carrying of Gareth Delve who is in line for a recall if Gatland -- who doesn't appear to be a great fan of Delve -- opts to put Jonathan Thomas into the second row along with Bradley Davies. The alternative would be to leave Thomas where he is and throw in Luke Charteris who would give Wales a greater lineout presence. And they could do with that. Over three rounds Wales have lost 39 per cent of their lineout ball.

On Saturday, they will be up against the best lineout defence in the Six Nations. So while they might be able to limit the number of times Ireland throw to this phase, they won't be able to control the number of times Ireland put it out of play and put pressure on them to throw it. Fortunately, the 'Irish Way' does not have a mandatory clause about entertaining. At least not in an expansive way. So if it discomfits Wales more to make them compete out of touch than at the tackle, then it's worth pursuing.

Certainly Ireland have the momentum and the personnel to balance the books from 2008 and prevent Wales walking away from Croke Park with what would be a 100 per cent record. Most of that personnel have been around since the Six Nations started, but Kiss is enthusiastic about the contribution of the younger crew.

"Probably one of the true qualities I have noticed since I've been here is there are a lot of players of certain age groups, say between 21 up to 24 who have a high winning percentage rate," he says. "They know what it's like to win a lot of games whether it's through school or the Leinster/Munster teams of recent times and Ireland more recently. There's guys who understand that world, who understand the things that make that work.

"We'll find out a bit more about them when we have a bit more adversity. That's how it happens. It will turn around at some stage and there will be a lot of pressure on. That's where we will find out more things about ourselves in terms of our player depth, in terms of leadership coming through."

That adversity is a while away yet. And it's a place Warren Gatland will be more familiar with than Declan Kidney.

Sunday Independent

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