Sunday 22 April 2018

Tony Ward: Heroic defence shows Ireland are emerging as force to be reckoned with

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

TO say that Saturday's Cardiff thriller was simply a game of two halves would not do justice to an extraordinary tussle.

Yes, the first period belonged to Ireland, who led by 23-3 at the break, and the Welsh certainly improved upon the resumption, outscoring the visitors 19-7. But in that second 40, we witnessed some truly heroic Irish defending.

What you do with the ball is one thing, but what you do without it, is even more important.

The strategy at the Millennium Stadium was based on cutting down space and hitting Welsh ball-carriers on or behind the gain line. By and large the plan worked, but there were periods when the Welsh took control and attacked in waves.

That was particularly so in the final quarter, and it was how Declan Kidney's men responded to this incessant pressure that, for me, proved this team are emerging as a force to be reckoned with.

Their spirit and resilience will be pushed to the limit again against England at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday, but after such a brave, committed effort, there's every reason to be optimistic.

There's still work to be done, but the quality and power of that stunning first-half display sets the standard for the rest of this Six Nations campaign.

The control, discipline and point-scoring execution were all right out of the top drawer. There was so much to admire, and every Irish player on the field contributed.

Cian Healy, Rory Best, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien were absolutely outstanding in that opening half. How anyone can question O'Mahony's right to an automatic place in this team is beyond me.

Both Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo more than held their own, with Zebo, in particular, excelling. His ball-juggling wizardry in the lead-up to Healy's try would have graced the Nou Camp, but it was his own score before that which really took the breath away.

Here was a genius at work – not Zebo, but the 'old codger' wearing No 13. The build-up to that try laid down an early Ireland marker and reminded everybody just how good Brian O'Driscoll still is.

To have the vision and confidence to deliver such a well-weighted pass behind the back of Alex Cuthbert was remarkable. Credit Zebo for having the intelligence to follow O'Driscoll's line of attack, but the quality of that delivery was a joy to behold. You'll do well to witness a better piece of skill on a rugby field.

O'Driscoll was a worthy recipient of the Man of the Match award. He snatched yet another opportunistic try (his 46th in the green jersey) and produced a typically selfless defensive contribution, along with our two second-row workhorses Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy.

If this performance was a taste of things to come from the great man, now that he doesn't have the huge responsibility of the captaincy on his shoulders, then there's cause for Ireland fans to be very excited indeed.

O'Driscoll was, as he has always been, the consummate performer – committed and inspired on the biggest stage.

At the Millennium Stadium he strutted his stuff as only he can. Where he went, others followed. Wearing the captain's armband doesn't make any difference to how O'Driscoll plays.

He showed tremendous support to his successor Jamie Heaslip with a towering performance, one of courage, quality and hard work. Put simply, he showed class – real class.

Irish Independent

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