Friday 14 December 2018

Neil Francis: I have a bad feeling about this - Wales are a settled side and more dangerous from behind the scrum

 

7 February 2016; Wales head coach Warren Gatland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2016, Ireland v Wales. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
7 February 2016; Wales head coach Warren Gatland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2016, Ireland v Wales. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Warren Gatland, more than any other coach in the world, has lived, dined and slept on the perceived slights of opinion thrown in his face.

He has faced down the doubters and used anger as an energy and turned a lot of negativity thrown in his direction into a catalyst for success.

His reputation and his coaching pedigree have been fully recognised and vouched for.

As Saturday approaches there are no sellers of opprobrium and no buyers of it either on the Welsh side.

Gatland's teams always seem to be better when they are bitter. This one comes down to what he has got in the bag.

Lest we forget, if there is any slight or a bone to pick it is with us - not Wales.

In 1999 our IRB delegates dutifully pledged their votes to Wales for the 1999 World Cup.

Twenty years later, when a small bit of Celtic reciprocation was required, the Welsh felt honour-bound to support South Africa because Gareth Davies felt that they should follow the result of World Rugby's Advisory Committee.

The goodwill between the countries continued into the fourth Test match in December 2017 when a surprisingly meek Springboks rolled over for Wales in a 24-22 loss.

After the vote we knew exactly where we stood with our near neighbours.

The Anglo-Saxons - our favourite enemy - stood with us when we needed them.

None of the Irish team will use that slight as a motivational tool but it will be a cherry on top if Ireland do win.

Wales have been a thorn in our side and enjoy beating us - if they were to win on Saturday it would be high up on that list of egregious losses.

This is simply one that Ireland dare not lose.

It is a very difficult one to call. Wales had a very poor 2017, losing three of their five matches in the Six Nations, but reserving their best performance to beat us in a harrowing 22-9 loss in the Principality Stadium.

It is one of the great unquantifiables that a senior national coach is excused from a year of his duties to coach the Lions. Excused so that he could pack as many Welsh players into the squad as possible.

Wales did not improve dramatically when an Gatland returned to his post emotionally exhausted and declared that he would not return to the Lions post again. He has, it seems, changed his mind on this.

Wales were flat in their November series and lost to Australia and New Zealand while they struggled badly against Georgia. The Springboks were more obliging visitors.

We guessed that Wales, without their top back-row of Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Falatau and Sam Warburton, no halves to speak of, and most certainly the loss of their main man and key influencer in midfield Jonathan Davies, could struggle to present a challenge.

They come over here confident of a win and for the life of me I can't disagree with that notion other than to cling to the hope that the bookies rarely get it wrong and the few points extra that you can garner from home advantage.

Ireland have not played well so far. They have not played in a sustained fashion and they are vulnerable. They are vulnerable because Wales know us well. The Welsh know our systems and they know how to negate them.

Saturday's match may provide value for money but not the result you require. The only glimmer of hope that we had was that Ireland would be able to pick a full-strength pack, but Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson are gone.

In the three key areas that decide Test matches now - the aerial battle, the breakdown and the tight battle - Wales can beat us in the first two.

Our first-choice pack can just about subdue their opponents without dominating them and in modern Test rugby that doesn't amount to a significant advantage.

I am not sure how good Cory Hill is when the stakes are raised - he was one of the 'Geographical Six' on the Lions tour last summer.

He's not a big man, a particularly good carrier or lineout player but played his part defensively when the entire Welsh pack averaged about 16 tackles a man, which is on the right side of industrious.

Shaun Edwards has instilled and installed a work ethic that makes Wales very hard to break down. They only missed three tackles against England.

I see stalemates in the tight and Wales are very adept at sacking anybody's maul. They are very hard to shift in this phase. Josh Navidi has been all perm and dreadlock for the lamentable Cardiff Blues yet he is playing like a superstar when he wears a red jersey.

It could come down to something as simple as steals at the break - Navidi has been very good here.

Ireland have to be very good at looking after the ball at the breakdown - it means bigger numbers into the ruck to negate the Welsh counter-ruck and a band of happy poachers.

The crucial difference between the packs is that Wazza has given free reign to his forwards, particularly Aaron Shingler, to play out of the tackle. It is forecast to be a dry and cold on Saturday - perfect for the offload game.

I am certain Wales will score a few tries and I am confident that offloads will feature large in each lead-up.

Joe seems to have dictated that off-loading is verboten and it is off to the Siberian front with you if you even think about it in open play.

The reason why this game will be a struggle is that Wales know what we do and when we are going to do it.

Liam Williams, who was brilliant under the high ball last season, particularly in New Zealand, was an obvious choice to replace Josh Adams.

Williams is the 10th Scarlets player in the run-out team even though he plays for Saracens - he knows the system.

He is first and foremost a full-back and Ireland won't get any change out of him - nor will they do so against Halfpenny.

Maybe Steff Evans is vulnerable but he has not shown any wobbles since he came to prominence.

Maybe it will come down to our halves pinning the Welsh back deep into their own territory. So many imponderables on how to kick.

I also think Wales are a far more dangerous outfit behind the scrum. Ireland will feel the loss of Robbie Henshaw heavily.

The Connacht man's missionary zeal for tackling will be missed.

He has this faculty for making two or three tackles a match where no one else thought of being when the play suddenly ended up on that part of the pitch.

Wales know us so well - they know our wraparounds, they know how to throw a shooter up to upset ball played in behind the backs. They know all our ploys and gizmos from the inside pass off the ruck to where our blindside wingers come into the line.

They are going to tackle us and pressure us and wait for mistakes from their pressure.

This is a grudge match and I feel the visitors have a whole lot more than a puncher's chance. I have a bad feeling about this one.

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