Wednesday 21 March 2018

Neil Francis: Ireland beware - It's much easier to beat Wales with four tries than England by eight points

Joe Schmidt. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The trick is not to come second after beating England. You can hope that Scotland deprive England of a try bonus point this weekend or ... you can go out and blitz Wales.

The Championship can be decided this weekend - it is imperative that the gap between Ireland and England remains at three points. If it is four points, England can come to Dublin and sit on the ropes and counter-punch.

They are vulnerable but beating them by a clear eight points will take some doing. Much easier to beat Wales with four tries than England by eight points.

Wales, as they so often do, stand in the way. Most people think this is a tricky match - trickier than Scotland away? It all depends on how you travel and more importantly how you start.

The difficulty in dealing with the Welsh is that this match requires the most thinking. England can be overcome in an arm-wrestle. The Welsh can be overcome if Ireland are smart and they execute.

Read more: The Left Wing: 'Wales can be torn apart in the wide channels' - Luke Fitzgerald

Read more: Schmidt: We can't afford to be 'stung' by another slow start

I think this game will be won in the third quarter and providing Ireland have all their players on the field and they haven't conceded a hatful of tries then they will be able to tweak their performance and outwit and out-manoeuvre Wales.

Deficit In the post-match of the recent Super Bowl where the New England Patriots recovered from an improbable 28-3 deficit, their coach Bill Belichick was asked what changes he made. He told the press that his team never doubted themselves or that the predicament they were in could not be overcome. "We find a way of doing things that are a little bit more productive." That may seem like a generality or something that is common sense to the point of being glib.

What Belichick did was completely change their system around - on the hoof and in the biggest game of the season. That is why he has won five Super Bowls as a head coach. Rugby can't change players in or out of position like American football. 

Belichick brought players who Atlanta had never heard of off his bench and played them in roles that their opponents were unable to cope with or prevent and, hey presto, they held their nerve, executed impeccably and scored 31 unanswered points.

You can prepare only for what you think is going to happen. Ireland will play differently in this game than they have all season. I back them to be sharp, concise and inventive.

Wales will be pretty confident that they can match or nullify Ireland in most areas of the field. Wales will also have had a look at Ireland's performance in the last three games to see where they can stop them. I was certain that Ireland would beat France and was confident that if they played well they would bonus-point them.

Conditions militated against that and Ireland couldn't convert several gilt-edged changes close in.

One of the things that the French targeted was Ireland's maul - they really did make a concerted and determined effort to stop Ireland there and it worked.

Ireland were unable to get a concentrated drive going on any of a dozen maul offensives - France kept coming back around in numbers and, sometimes illegally, stopped Ireland. No platform here and it discommoded Ireland.

It did have the effect of draining the French forwards but Wales are a far fitter side than the French and they realise that a big effort - rather like the French one would be enough to inconvenience Ireland. Stop their maul and you put the brakes on Ireland's best form of go-forward ball. If Ireland do get a couple of trademark drives here it will run the Welsh low in confidence.

If I were Joe Schmidt (below), I would be looking at the Welsh front five. Apart from Alun Wyn Jones I can't see too many of those guys heading off to New Zealand with the Lions. Competence at tight is essential at this level but the Welsh scrum is vulnerable.

I pointed it out for the Scottish game - who was to know that there would only be six scrums in the whole game? If the roof is closed there might be the same number again. There will, I am sure, be a series of scrums close in and Ireland will have to make their superiority count here.

Tomas Francis in particular has got away with it at scrum time so far - but - and I have always wanted to say this - I think yer man Francis is a crap player. I think Jake Ball is a very average second-row and although Luke Charteris is struggling for form, he would be a far better option and far harder to deal with at lineout time. Ball takes on a lot of ball but it is 15 carries for 15 metres.

I think Ireland will hold sway at tight - it is though on the line where these types of Test matches are won. The quality and quantity of tackling from your front five often decides the outcome of a Test match. In the same match two years ago in Cardiff, Wales made an incredible 250 tackles with all of their forwards well into double figures and Charteris into the 30s. That type of stoic resistance was the winning of the match. Ireland had two-thirds of the ball and field position - it is hard to reconcile that they managed to lose that game 23-16.

It was a very satisfying afternoon for the Welsh - they were, it has to be said, very brave and dogged across the line. Ireland were some way off being smart enough or patient enough to break them down. They will have learned how not to do it from that experience.

The Digger Barnes came in for some criticism for his refereeing performance that day. Strangely despite all the vitriol directed at Barnes, the penalty count was 13-11 against the Welsh but in the first half Ireland got pinged off the park and the Welsh were allowed to garner a 12-0 lead. The second half, with Ireland trying to get back into the game, saw a levelling in the penalty count.

Unobtrusive Interpretation of the referee is key and no other sport in the world is as open to individual interpretation as our sport. Some of Wayne Barnes' decisions that day would only have been awarded by him. If Romain Poite said, "I'm not the coach, I'm the referee", you could change that for Digger to "I'm not the referee, I am the centre of attention". No matter what happens tomorrow night Barnes will not have an unobtrusive, peripheral role in proceedings.

Wales can cause Ireland problems but they have moved away from Warrenball and the two main agents of this tactic are on the bench. Jamie Roberts and Talupe Faletau over the last five or six years were the big men who got Wales forward and allowed their runners to get around the corner.

Even the impressive Ross Moriarty is not a sure-fire cert to get over the gain-line. Wales are good enough to penetrate and cause trouble but I don't think that they will be able to control the ball for long enough to make it pay.

Ireland, like they did two years ago, must win the kicking game and dominate field position. They can't afford another slow start nor can they go into auto-pilot mode. Wales will be fit enough and determined enough to go with them but I feel Ireland when they have the initiative will take their chances and their coach will divine a second-half plan to see them adapt and react to what has gone on in the first half. Once again, Ireland to win and if they play well a try bonus point is there.

Irish Independent

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