Sunday 22 April 2018

Neil Francis: Hold the Welsh three-quarter line and Kidney is halfway to improving his average

Any repeat of Ireland’s mental shortcomings in Wellington could be fatal today, says Neil Francis

THIS balding, middle-aged salad dodger is hacking his way around a rural golf course. Precariously perched on a greenside hillock, his wooden swing precipitates a shift in balance and he falls over arse about face into the ditch. His body connects with a hidden lamp and suddenly — whoosh — a genie appears.

“You know the drill about releasing genies from the lamp at this stage,” says the genie, “but in this instance I can only give you two choices. I can turn you into the greatest golfer in the world or the greatest lover.”

After some deliberation, the man says, “the greatest golfer please.” The genie is surprised and says, “are you sure?” “Certain,” says your man. Alacazam.

A few weeks later, the genie, enjoying his freedom, turns up on the golf course to check out how his subject is getting on. Your man hits a doozie 330 metres off the tee with a little bit of fade and has a lob wedge in his hand as he strides purposefully ahead to address his ball. “Great shot,” says the genie. “Thanks,” says your man.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” enquires the genie. “Shoot,” replies your man. “Ninety nine point nine per cent of men would have gone for the ‘greatest lover' option. Just looking at you, I'm very surprised; would you be able to tell me how many times you made love last year?” “About five or six times,” your man answers.

“That's not a great average now is it?” asks the genie. “No! It's not, but it's not bad for the parish priest in a small village.” The Monsignor's averages against Wales are not good. Declan Kidney has played five and lost three to Warren Gatland's Wales. For a team we supposedly beat on a regular basis the stats tell us otherwise. A team comprised of players plucked from Welsh provinces that regularly get pummelled by Irish provinces in the Heineken and Rabo — it just goes to show that Heineken form never translates into success at international level and, if you cast your mind back, the Welsh could and possibly should have spoiled our greatest day in 2009 when we went for the Slam.

If the Welsh can absorb pressure like they did in Wellington, then they will win The World Cup quarter-final defeat in Wellington was a grievous loss and could easily be repeated today if the principal code in sporting success is not observed — that is that you can't expect to win if you don't know why you lose.

It is a given that psychologically Ireland were by some distance off the level required to impose their will and style of play on the Welsh. It goes further than merely wanting it more than the Irish. The Welsh were primed for the quarter-final in Wellington and it manifested itself in a defensive masterclass. It is easy to prepare a defensive strategy for a team — much harder to implement it, take it out onto the field and inflict it on the opposition.

The key area of the conflict was, as it normally is in modern Test rugby, at the breakdown. The unit charged with determining policy here is your back row. The Welsh back row made 55 tackles with none missed, with Dan Lydiate making an astonishing 24 tackles. Luke Charteris, the Welsh second row that day, made 14 tackles in 36 minutes before he went off. I don't think I made 14 tackles in my entire career.

It was not the quantity of tackles that proved fruitful for the Welsh that day but their devastating quality. Simplicity of thought. Shaun Edwards realised that Ireland's most forceful runners, Seán O'Brien and Stephen Ferris, had to be stopped before they reached critical mass. The instruction: ‘Spread yourselves low and take them by the bootlaces. Second man in wrap the ball carrier up and give them six/seven seconds’ recycle time.'

Ireland were so pedestrian and pedantic in trying to get one carrier away, a gambit which was sealed off from early inside the first quarter. It was amazing that with so much experience on the field that none of their on-field leaders could change their point of attack. Wales had the luxury of two men at the breakdown, nine across a very committed line, one floating pillar and three sweepers in the back field.

Ireland couldn't even kick away their slow ball. Ireland could get no traction or motion into their attack and rigor mortis set in to their mental and physical demeanour. The Welsh had the game won long before Cian Healy and Keith Earls bungled a straightforward stop on Jonathan Davies for Wales' third try.

So today will Wales be as aggressive and defensively intelligent as they were in Wellington? Lydiate is a huge loss, so is Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones. Some of their replacement players and the Welsh front five might not have the enthusiasm or the ability to be as consistently efficient on the gain-line as their predecessors. But if the Welsh can absorb pressure like they did in Wellington to the point of almost revelling in it, then they will win today.

So are Ireland prepared? Have they adjusted? They know there is a good chance of losing today; fear of losing keeps your thoughts honest. Fear of losing is a good thing unless it is eclipsed by self-doubt. Did Ireland ever think about losing in Wellington?

Were they over-confident back then? How confident will they be today? Revenge rarely manages to instil confidence. Mentally they will be a good degree stronger and reassured by the fact that they have to go out and prove themselves again.

Neither will Ireland be struck by the lack of ideas they suffered when they chased the game in the second half. They will most assuredly not be hampered by some inaccuracies and poor execution perpetrated particularly by their halves, Conor Murray and Ronan O'Gara, who were poor that day. We expect an awful lot more from Jonny Sexton and Murray, who might just not be the right combination. We will know today how tuned Ireland are mentally by the way they defend. All three tries scored against Ireland in Wellington were the product of a lack of concentration rather than Welsh genius. Even Shane Williams' early try could have been defended. Ireland's three-quarter line have a mammoth task in every sense of the word. The Welsh three-quarter line must be the biggest in history. Alex Cuthbert is 6' 6” and 16 stone. Jamie Roberts is 6' 4” and 17 stone.

Jonathan Davies is 6' 1” and 16 stone and George North is 6' 4” and 16 stone. They are quick and dangerous and at the very least will gain-line on their terms every time they go wide. I sense that is why Sexton starts and why the Monsignor is not too unhappy that Fergus McFadden is in — he is far stronger defensively than Earls.

Off the field, the battle again is whether Les Kiss can outwit Shaun Edwards. The previously profitable ‘choke tackle' was exploited ruthlessly by the Welsh, who managed to get their ballcarrier to ground quickly and get low body positions for their supporting ruckers to drive the intended maul quickly to ground while the ball carrier worked his way to place the ball back on his terms. I am not sure how many Irish players are in a position physically to hold up any of this Welsh three-quarter line in a choke tackle.

Kiss has been left in charge of offensive strategy too which will be key. Ireland will have to score tries to win and be a lot more fluent than they were in Wellington which, lest we forget, was little more than three months ago.

If Ireland want to win this game, the recipe for success is simple. Stop the Welsh threequarters on the gain line. Play the game in the Welsh half. Get the Irish forwards to offload before contact and hit Mike Phillips really hard every time he so much as looks at a ball.

Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour; it would be sweet to win this one. I don't quite know what to expect from Ireland but whatever genie Kidney pulls out of the lamp, it's going to have to be pretty good to beat Wales, who I fear will figure Ireland out once again.

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