Wednesday 17 January 2018

Green machine is upwardly mobile

Ireland 27 Wales 12

Even allowing for the fact that there has been a lot right with Irish rugby since the turn of the century, a return of nine wins from 12 starts against Wales is more comprehensive than you could have imagined when the tournament expanded to become the Six Nations.

But that's where we are now, and even if the Grand Slam is out of sight and the Championship is heading in the same direction, this three tries to nil win was very good indeed.

It was the second last Six Nations game at Croke Park unless there is a dramatic turnaround coming down the line. And what started here in almost traumatic circumstances with the defeat by France in 2007 is winding up successfully with the prospect of Scotland going the same way as Wales did yesterday.

So Ireland will be leaving this part of Dublin with a hugely positive impression. Their game is working well, and some of the individuals in it are developing impressively. Tomas O'Leary, who was under pressure in the media after the France game, was man of the match here in an excellent display, which included a try-saving hit on Jamie Roberts in the first half.

Keith Earls added another two tries to the one he picked up in Twickenham and might have picked up a hat trick with better luck. And the forwards did what you would have expected against a weakened opposition pack, and dominated in the key areas.

In some positions the difference in class was enormous. The Irish back row were streets ahead of their opposite numbers, and while Bradley Davies showed well for Wales in the first half hour, Paul O'Connell was operating at a different level.

All good then for Declan Kidney? Mostly, yes. His new out-half Jonny Sexton is settling in well despite poor kicking stats yesterday of three from seven. And he has an injury issue with Gordon D'Arcy who went off with a dead leg mid-way through the first half.

The coach will be frustrated at his team's inability to cope with short restarts coming straight down the middle of the field, and with the issues they had in coming to terms with the referee. And there was a disparity between the huge effectiveness and efficiency of the Ireland defensive line and its concession of penalties.

Ireland were able to defend for long periods without conceding anything that might lead to a try, but the downside was what happened when they made their tackles and contested the ball on the deck. At this stage in rugby we know we have two games -- the one north of the equator and the one south of that line -- and currently down south referees are hot on the tackled player having no evil thoughts, never mind deeds, until he is back on his feet.

This is a cause worth pursuing for the amount challenges by players who never get back to their feet is alarming. But like all causes if you don't stick to your principles then people get confused about the message. Ireland seemed more confused than Wales yesterday and it contributed to the penalty count of 16-10 against the home side. Maybe it was that South African referee Craig Joubert was clamping down on this in the first place (surely they knew that in advance?) or maybe it was because sometimes he was hot and sometimes he was the opposite.

David Wallace, for example, suffered most obviously on the former after he clattered Jamie Roberts to kill a Welsh attack, whereas late in the day Shane Williams got away with criminal stuff having tackled his club-mate Tommy Bowe.

Whatever, it was an irritant that on another day could have become a lot more than that. Another day against a side with more to offer than Wales. Last week Warren Gatland had a whinge about how Ireland would be happy to kick the ball out and then challenge the opposition's throw. Well, when your lineout is as crap as Wales's then it would have been irresponsible not to make them sweat a bit at this phase.

There was a knot of Welsh fans seated close to the press box in Croke Park and as one they cheered every time they won a throw in the first half. By half-time they were trading at 50 per cent, but at least they had been effective in limiting Ireland to a measly three throws in 40 minutes. Their lineout improved dramatically after the break but by then they were already chasing the game. And you can't do that without scoring tries.

It might have been different had they got something from their best period of pressure -- a multi-phase attack soon after half time, by which stage they trailed 16-6 -- and when it settled into a series of five metre scrums Ireland were under real pressure. Just when that pressure was turning into pain they screwed the Welsh scrum and Sexton was able to clear to the 10 metre line. You felt the game swung conclusively at that point, and when Wales were turned over on their next attack there was no way back for them.

And what happened next? Lee Byrne sailed as close to a red card as is possible without picking one up. It's been an eventful season for the Ospreys full back. He was shown yellow in the first half for interfering with Tomas O'Leary at the base of a ruck and Wales conceded 10 points to Earls and O'Leary in his absence. It was a high price to pay because the average here is three. But when you lose your 15 it tends to put critical stress on your ability to defend and for both tries -- especially O'Leary's -- Byrne's presence would have presented Ireland with a different proposition.

This time he chucked the ball away after he had found the sanctuary of the touchline. When he went to complain about being penalised Mr Joubert reached for his pocket and then probably realised that the only colour he could fish out was red. He took his hand away and Byrne escaped. Wales paid with another three points however: 19-6 to Ireland with 28 minutes left and no sign of how Wales could begin to overhaul that total.

On the hour it got worse for them after the centurion Brian O'Driscoll rescued a loose ball nicely and O'Leary put Earls over for his second try which he did brilliantly to finish. Stephen Jones pulled back three points three minutes later with his fourth penalty of the day but even that was cancelled out by a good Sexton drop goal. Over before it ended then. Business as usual against Wales.

Sunday Independent

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