Monday 11 December 2017

Tony Ward: Paris in Spring losing lustre

NO DOUBT the bulk of post-match analysis will centre on the disappointing manner in which we lost this one at the death.

There was scarcely enough time for Ronan O'Gara to restart when Wales closed it out. But the real issue here is not the unfortunate timing from an Irish perspective, but what went before.

The reality we must all face is that the better team, playing the better tailored rugby over the course of 80 attritional minutes, eventually won out. In the end, just two points separated the sides, but you can’t tell me that victory on the day and with it, all that important early championship momentum, didn't go where it was most deserved.

The Welsh have big men in key back positions and they maximise that physical superiority to the full. It wasn't quite men against boys, but Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies against Gordon D'Arcy and Fergus McFadden is a patent mismatch.

It goes without saying that in the absence of Brian O'Driscoll we lack not only physicality at the breakdown, but that ‘shooter' element and razor-sharp ability to cause mental mayhem in every opposing attack in midfield.

And let us be clear here, irrespective of who is chosen to replace the irreplaceable in midfield, the task is nigh on impossible – and don't the opposition know it.

The Welsh got the ball wide early and often to their big runners and they wreaked havoc. Rest assured Philippe Saint Andre will be following suit. What Wales did consistently, despite the lateness of the reward, will be repeated pretty close to the letter at Stade de France in five days’ time.

It doesn't take Einstein to figure the likely French strategy. Therein lies the core of the problem for Declan Kidney.

Short of depriving the French of possession, it will be more of the same in Paris on Saturday. Let's be clear, the fault is not McFadden's – irrespective of whom is chosen to replace O'Driscoll, the midfield will be targeted.

D'Arcy was innocuous yesterday and that hardly helped. With the six-day turnaround, there is little room for wriggle, but certainly the search for a different formula is essential for the three games to follow on from France.

Beyond that, Donnacha Ryan did enough to ensure a starting place in Paris, while the decision to bring on Eoin Reddan and Ronan O'Gara for the final few minutes had me perplexed

Was it a rush of blood to the head; a decision made on the basis of Leigh Halfpenny landing the touchline conversion and that it would be down to drop-goal king O'Gara to get us out of a hole?

Regardless of what way the conversion went, I would have left the halves in situ. But the most disappointing aspect for me wasn't that we conceded the penalty – and I don't believe it was an illegal tackle, never mind one worthy of a yellow card – but the manner in which Wales, to their credit, worked the ball upfield in the final minutes to within range of the Irish posts.


This showed real depth of courage and moral character, not to mention exemplary error-free rugby, at the end of 70-plus exhausting minutes.

Were it O'Gara restarting for Munster or Jonny Sexton for Leinster and leading 21-20 with just minutes left on the clock, I doubt any opposing team would be allowed build the phases to that final penalty as Wales did yesterday.

Full credit to the Welsh, but the real issue for Ireland is not whether the Stephen Ferris tackle was legal or illegal, but how they were let get there to within striking range at all. They went much too far, too easily.

I won't harp on about Sexton's attempt at the penalty from within his own half at a time when, with the Welsh reduced to 14, down the line was the logical place to go.

They say you learn more in defeat than in victory. Expect video analyst Mervyn Murphy to be a very busy man in the hours and days to come. Paris in a cold spring looms large, chillingly so.

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