Friday 13 December 2019

Wales offer no defence to Kidney's green giants

Shane Williams of Wales is tackled by Ireland substitute Leo Cullen as the visitors once again failed to find a breakthrough during Saturday's Six Nations match at Croke Park BRENDAN MORAN / SPORTSFILE
Shane Williams of Wales is tackled by Ireland substitute Leo Cullen as the visitors once again failed to find a breakthrough during Saturday's Six Nations match at Croke Park BRENDAN MORAN / SPORTSFILE

Hugh Farrelly

WHEN the Welsh management team trooped in to the media room, they were understandably a trifle glum.

As coach Warren Gatland attempted to put perspective on a pummelling, his defensive co-ordinator Shaun Edwards pored over the official match data he had just being handed by the Wales media man.

There was one stat which proved particularly startling for the former Great Britain rugby league legend and his head snapped back to the media man as he held up two fingers, in Churchill rather than Harvey Smith style. "Twice?" he mouthed silently. The media man nodded ruefully.

We can't say for certain which stat had provoked such a reaction but it is a safe bet to assume it was the one that showed Ireland making 121 tackles to Wales' 63. Being forced to make twice as many tackles as your opponents and still scoring three tries to none in a 15-point hammering is fairly impressive stuff.

For the past six or seven seasons, Edwards has been the defensive 'guru' of northern hemisphere rugby and there were no quibbles when he was handed that role with the Lions for the tour to South Africa last summer. However, after a Six Nations championship that has seen the Welsh concede 107 points with one game to go, that reputation has been damaged severely.

That equates to an average concession of 26.75 points per game, which compares unfavourably with Ireland's average of 18 -- it drops to a paltry 13 if you factor out the Paris 33-10 aberration.

The Irish defence is masterminded by another ex-league man, Australian Les Kiss, and his stock has never been higher after another victory brought it to 13 wins, a draw and one defeat in 15 matches.

Defence is the bedrock of this team's self-belief, copper-fastening the calm assurance that precludes any sense of panic when their line comes under threat. The psychological gulf between these teams was vast.

Wales were their usual schizophrenic selves, flapping and flailing and facilitating Irish ambition. Lee Byrne's silly yellow card after 24 minutes was predictably debilitating, compounded by the failure to pull someone out of the back row to fill the gap in the back line.

With extra space to exploit, it was attack coach Alan Gaffney's cue and Ireland clocked up two tries through Keith Earls and Tomas O'Leary -- taking their advantage from 6-3 to 16-3 by the time Byrne returned.

The game was not won yet, though. Stephen Jones kicked another penalty and Wales set up a scrum position on the Irish line, but once a fantastic effort by the front row and their forwards colleagues turned over the ball again, it was large woman on karaoke time, which Earls confirmed with his second try in due course.


The basics of Ireland's game were secure again. It is well established that the Irish do not have a destructive scrum but it came through again despite being put under considerable pressure by Adam Jones in particular.

The lineout was excellent once again, terrorising the Welsh to the tune of half of their 12 lineouts being lost and slickly efficient when Rory Best was throwing in.

The back line ran well and intelligently and the clinical execution of Twickenham was much in evidence again. Earls was electric, matching size-belying physicality in defence to the constant threat he posed in attack. Much as Cian Healy is in the pack, Earls is growing in stature with each outing and it is an extremely healthy position for coach Declan Kidney, with Luke Fitzgerald to come back into the equation.

But Tomas O'Leary was the real eye-catcher. There were a couple of minor errors but the scrum-half played with total assurance throughout with improved box-kicking, and intelligent option-taking such as the quick-tap that set up Earls' first score after 26 minutes.

His own try was an exhilarating combination of pace and determination and the knee-jerk calls for him to be replaced post-Paris look even more ridiculous now -- O'Leary is a central figure in this team.

The caveats with this performance start with the issue of kicking. Out-half Jonny Sexton had a fine game with ball in hand -- passing well and causing consternation in the Welsh line when he took it on.

But, while the misses against England could be explained by the difficult nature of the kicks, there were straightforward attempts not taken against Wales and the out-half looked out of sorts when he stood over the ball.

Having seen the consummate kicking performance he produced for Leinster against the Scarlets at the RDS in his Twickenham audition performance, it is hard to fathom. A clutch of Irish players had kicks out on the full and the boot-to-ball issue, while not critical against Wales, could be self-destructive against the better teams -- such as on this summer's tour to New Zealand and Australia.

The major concern arising from this victory was the penalty count of 16 as Ireland struggled with the latest IRB tinkering at the breakdown.

Wales also had some joy at the restarts and that will be zoned in on before the Scots roll into town. But, overall, it was another extremely positive performance which emphasises the extent to which Ireland have moved beyond the second-tier nations.

And that is the point. Scotland will be game and unified but crippled by their attacking limitations and the next true test of where there this squad is trying to get to comes in the summer.

As the initial tackle stat demonstrates, Ireland were once again dominated in the possession and territory stakes. With such a convincing defence, they are able to deal with that scenario against the likes of England and Wales but if the All Blacks or Wallabies have that much ball, Ireland will suffer.

But, for now, there is a Triple Crown to claim and a Croke Park farewell to mark, the bigger issue of stepping up to the next level can be tackled afterwards.

IRELAND -- G Murphy; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy (R Kearney, 23), K Earls (R O'Gara, 77); J Sexton, T O'Leary (E Reddan, 78); C Healy, R Best, J Hayes (T Buckley, 73), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (L Cullen, 78); S Ferris (S Jennings, 78), J Heaslip, D Wallace.

WALES -- L Byrne (A Bishop 63); L Halfpenny, J Hook, J Roberts, S Williams; S Jones, R Rees (D Peel, 61); P James (R Gill, 77), M Rees (H Bennett, 56), A Jones; B Davies (I Gough, 59), L Charteris; J Thomas, G Delve, M Williams (capt; S Warburton, 66).

REF -- C Joubert (South Africa).

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