Saturday 7 December 2019

Ireland in bonus territory as frantic win keeps dream alive

Ireland 37 Wales 27

Dan Leavy, left, of Ireland runs in to celebrate with team mates after Jacob Stockdale scored their side's fifth try
Dan Leavy, left, of Ireland runs in to celebrate with team mates after Jacob Stockdale scored their side's fifth try
Ireland’s Conor Murray is tackled by Leigh Halfpenny during yesterday’s game. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If your fear beforehand was that this Test match was going to be off the charts on the brutality ratings then you would have been wide of the mark. Not by much though, and had Wales taken the same approach as Ireland then we would have been scraping bodies off the floor by the end of it.

Thankfully, most of the prone players would have been Welshmen gutted that a game they had got close enough to saving had been whipped away again, with an intercept from Jacob Stockdale of a Gareth Anscombe pass on the final play of the game.

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland dives in for a first half try Photo: Getty
Jacob Stockdale of Ireland dives in for a first half try Photo: Getty

Rather than a game of two halves, we had a journey via two routes, and on a perfect day for travelling. Both teams were trying to get to the same destination, but Ireland opted for the shortest distance, regardless of the traffic up ahead.

Wales were happier to take a couple of side roads. And in the interests of health and safety - not to mention scenery - it was just as well.

Ireland's wing Keith Earls is tackled by Wales' full-back Leigh Halfpenny Photo: Getty
Ireland's wing Keith Earls is tackled by Wales' full-back Leigh Halfpenny Photo: Getty

So this classic divergence in styles may not have given us a classic Test match but for sure it was compelling. When Conor Murray - yes, Conor Murray - nailed a fine penalty goal on 76 minutes to give his side a 10-point lead, that seemed to be that.

Had Sexton not been carrying a glute injury by then he would not have run a penalty a few minutes earlier. Not quite. Ireland got their defence out wide horribly wrong - shades of New Zealand in 2013 - to breathe life into the contest, via Steff Evans, and we were off again.

Stockdale's touchdown killed it, in the process leaving Joe Schmidt's team one win away from a Grand Slam game, against England on St Patrick's Day, where the hosts will have only the Championship as a target.

And how might that go, Warren Gatland was asked?

"I don't really care," he said. He then, with tongue in cheek, lauded the wondrous aesthetic that is the Irish approach under Joe Schmidt.

"I thought they were outstanding," he said of Ireland. "I have to apologise to Joe if I upset him a couple of years ago by being critical of the way that they played. I thought they moved the ball brilliantly well and they were so exciting in the way they played today. They were really good. All credit to Joe and the team. They're definitely going in the right direction."

There is often a difference between playing the way you'd like, and playing the way the opposition would not like you to play. Ireland fans will hope that this was more of the latter because what was a massive physical effort, producing five tries to three - on the back of a statistical storm in Ireland's favour - could readily have come unstuck in the endgame.

Nevertheless, the manner of three of the tries was instructive. For Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy and Cian Healy their touchdowns were all about dominating inches.

Certainly for the first one they could have saved a lot of sweat and energy by getting a head up and looking at the space and numbers out wide. Keith Earls was doing his nut on the right wing, unmarked, and looking at an acre of space.

"We've been sparring partners for a long time," Schmidt said of his relationship with Gatland, who clearly had seen enough pick and jam rugby for one day. "I'd offer the same thing. We helped them be exciting at times. Other people make assessments. I wouldn't say I look at the performance of our opposition once the game was done."

The effect of the poor return for massive effort meant that with four minutes to go in the first half Ireland were trailing 13-8. A Gareth Davies try and fine goal kicking by Leigh Halfpenny had Wales in a good position. So you'd imagine Ireland were hoping that with the territory that might come from a penalty against Aaron Shingler they could reduce the deficit by three.

By then Johnny Sexton had left eight points behind him off the tee, so already there was an unease in the home crowd that in a game where everybody reckoned there would be only a score in it, Ireland were missing a few tricks.

Despite that, Sexton had been brilliant. His pass for Stockdale's try - albeit with the comfort of an advantage play - was stunningly accurate, over 15 metres and under pressure. This time he gave them territory, and from there Aki grunted his way over for a half-time lead.

Aki had a decent game but his partner, man of the match Chris Farrell, was outstanding. So too was Earls, and in a terrific forward pack performance Devin Toner and Cian Healy were very good.

Leavy's close-in try six minutes into the second half, with Sexton's conversion, put Ireland 22-13 ahead, and then in similar circumstances Healy barged over for the bonus point, on 54 minutes.

The difference in efficiency however was perfectly illustrated with how easily Wales struck back through Shingler, to make it a 10-point game again. And with Sexton carrying a leg injury, he passed up a penalty shot before Murray took over to slot those three points on 76 minutes.

Again Wales opened Ireland like a screw-top, and Evans made it a three- point game. Had they gone on to close the deal then it would have not only derailed Ireland's Grand Slam aspirations but messed badly with their heads.

So well done to Stockdale for picking off his second, and the killer, try. The approach against the Scots will be interesting.

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