Thursday 22 February 2018

Conor O'Shea: Disappointing, but this may make us rethink approach

Attack and balance of midfield will now be focus for Irish

Wales' Alun Wyn Jones in action with Ireland's Jamie Heaslip
Wales' Alun Wyn Jones in action with Ireland's Jamie Heaslip

Conor O'Shea

First of all it has to be said that Wales were magnificent, one of the greatest defensive displays ever seen in international rugby, to make 288 tackles in a game of rugby may mean questions are asked of Ireland in attack. But, credit Sam Warburton and Wales, their defence was simply heroic.

Two passages of play in the second half summed this game up. Ireland battered Wales and held on to the ball for 32 phases, but all it resulted in were missed opportunities and a penalty, a penalty that Ireland kicked into the corner. Ireland attacked again, but the Welsh defence was utterly magnificent and Johnny Sexton gave a penalty away for going off his feet. It was two heavyweights going toe to toe, but when Wales moved downfield on the attack, they opened their eyes and moved the ball wide, they asked a different question of the defence, Tommy Bowe hung off and Scott Williams scored what looked like it would be the winning score.

There is an old adage when you travel away from home that you need to be 10 points better than the opposition. To do that, you need all parts of your game to function, a solid set-piece, a watertight defence and when you get your opportunities, you have to be clinical. The start to any game is huge and the start to this from Ireland was poor. That Ireland were struggling was summed up by Sexton putting a restart out on the full and also missing his first kick at goal.

Ireland were rattled by the Welsh start - the home side's line speed and physicality was really rattling them. The aerial skills spoken of pre-game as our strength were our Achilles' heel as Wales, through Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny, dominated the air.

As Wales took a 12-0 lead, they suffered a huge blow through the loss of Samson Lee at prop. Warren Gatland's men were massively on top, but ill-discipline at 12-3 up and three further penalties in a row, all of which Ireland played through, led to a kick into the corner.

The small margins that Joe Schmidt talked about post-game were summed up in this moment. A driven maul and a try would have made it a two-point game, but a poor throw from Rory Best saw Warburton steal the ball. Danger was averted. Warburton's sin-binning for persistent infringements gave Ireland another foothold, but we only won the 10 minutes 6-3 and given that we kicked that first goal right at the start of it, it effectively was three-all. Not the return you would have wanted.

The game swung one way and then the other with Ireland dominating, but not able to score. Ireland's response to Williams' second half try was magnificent and immediate. The bench was emptied, with Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin injecting pace. You wondered how Wales could survive, but Ireland got white line fever, Bowe, Zebo and Payne were literally waving for ball for a walk in score, but caught in the moment, they couldn't take the chance and you felt with it that was the game. Wales' defensive effort was simply incredible, but they could not hang on and Ireland's maul try, a penalty try, left us in for another nail biter.

Ireland probably got caught doing what they talked about not doing. There was a lot of pre-match talk about not playing enough with ball in hand, in this game as they chased the game they played from too deep and the penalty Warburton got off Cian Healy was an example of Ireland playing too much and not kicking enough.

This defeat may not be the worst for us in the long run. True, the Grand Slam is gone and there will be huge frustration, but with the World Cup in mind, it may make us think differently about how we attack and what the balance of our midfield is. Expectation is a huge thing and there will be criticism instead of bouquets and that may well keep the team grounded and more driven than ever.

In the end, we should park our own disappointment and marvel at a defensive effort from Wales that we have not seen the like of and may not again for a long time.

Sunday Indo Sport

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