Wednesday 17 January 2018

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Loss of Sean O'Brien an injury too many for Joe Schmidt's Ireland

Simon Zebo and CJ Stander go through their paces at the Irish training session yesterday (SPORTSFILE)
Simon Zebo and CJ Stander go through their paces at the Irish training session yesterday (SPORTSFILE)
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Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The great master sits at the top of the room and dares you to doubt him. We've been here before with Joe Schmidt and he's always come up with the goods.

But even his mask was allowed to slip as he named his team to face Wales yesterday and considered the prospect of taking on Europe's biggest team with such an under-powered pack.

He was speaking about Sean O'Brien's injury and the fact that the Tullow Tank should be back in harness for the trip to Paris in a week's time.

"Hopefully there is still a fair bit to play for at that stage," Schmidt said casually, echoing the doubt that exists across the nation ahead of the most uncertain Six Nations campaign since 2013.

In November 2014, there were similar questions being asked of Ireland ahead of their opening autumn series with key men sidelined and new combinations gelling, but Ireland produced a performance that was good enough to unseat the Springboks.

As long as Schmidt is in the coaching booth, there is a feeling that Ireland are in with a chance. But this appears to be beyond even his scope. Under the New Zealander, spring has been a bountiful season but this crop of players look far from ready to take on the best the old tournament has to offer.

They come into this game on the back of World Cup heartache against Argentina in their last game and, for all the brave faces at Carton House, the nature of that performance must surely have had them questioning everything they have done in the years leading up the that Millennium Stadium hammering.

The list of absentees is like a who's who of Ireland's great days in recent years. Healy, Ross, Moore, O'Connell, Henderson, O'Mahony, O'Brien; almost an entire pack worth of power-players who could go toe to toe with the Welsh and win.

In their place come some good players, but can they really dominate a Test match of this magnitude against a Wales pack with experience such experience, led by the totemic Alun Wyn Jones?

The scrum should be solid, while a Devin Toner and Rory Best lineout will run smoothly but it is in the close exchanges where O'Connell's influence will be missed.

Mike McCarthy is enjoying a fine season and has a decent Leinster partnership with Toner, but can either of them dominate a Wales second-row of such standing as Jones and Luke Charteris?

Without O'Brien, Tommy O'Donnell must cope with Warren Gatland's twin-opensides and CJ Stander will be asked to carry ball frequently and with his customary venom.

Yet, the South African is making his Test debut for his adopted nation and has been surprisingly quiet since coming into camp. It is a lot to ask of him, despite his heroics in red.

This is one of those days when Ireland need Jamie Heaslip to step up and produce a performance that befits his standing and experience as Ireland's long-standing No 8. He was heroic in defeat against the Pumas and, along with captain Best, has a huge role to play in stemming the crimson tide.

Parity would be acceptable for Ireland, because behind the scrum they have a far stronger combination of players who can hurt Wales in a variety of ways.

With front-foot ball, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have the capacity to run any game, while Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne may have little rugby between them but have proven that they can cope with the best.

Out wide, Rob Kearney's injury robs Schmidt of a player who can do huge damage under a dropping Sexton bomb, but Simon Zebo has plenty of incentive to perform and make life difficult for his Leinster rival who is set to return to training midway through next week.

On the wings, Schmidt will want Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble to pile pressure on their men and offer different threats with ball in hand.

As with every opponent this season, the Welsh ball-carriers will target Sexton with ball in hand and will try and force him out of the game if they can.


They have plenty of threats, with Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies reunited in the centre and George North on the wings, but for all the heralding of Warren Gatland's side there are potential weak-links in wing Tom James, full-back Gareth Anscombe and scrum-half Gareth Davies who are all light on experience in this tournament.

The weather may play into Ireland's favour as Sexton takes to the air to apply pressure to Anscombe who has spent most of this season wearing the Cardiff Blues No 10 shirt and won't have experienced what the challenge the Aviva Stadium in February presents to a full-back.

Yet Wales were able to de-power Ireland's aerial game in better conditions in Cardiff last year as Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny won the first series of high balls to set the tone.

That game remains a fascinating watch and Schmidt will be mindful not to hand any early advantage to the visitors today after they raced into a 12-0 lead last season.

The picky Wayne Barnes is replaced by Jerome Garces in the middle and the French official took charge of the quarter-final in Cardiff, penalising Ireland 12 times.

Certainly, Schmidt will look for clarity around the scrum where Ireland were unhappy with Argentina's ability to disengage early and put pressure on the ball carrier, while he also spoke at length yesterday about Wales' capacity to eke penalties out better than anyone else.

That is a mark of Gatland's side's intelligence and experience.

At the breakdown, Sam Warburton is acquiring that Richie McCaw-esque ability to get away with everything bar murder, while he'll be helped by Justin Tipuric whose selection deprives Wales of Dan Lydiate's tackling contribution but adds a thoroughbred to the equation.

Tipuric almost single-handedly ended Jordi Murphy's World Cup ambitions in the warm-up game in Dublin last August and O'Donnell has a job on his hands if he wants to achieve dominance on the deck tomorrow. That will be key for Ireland whose game-plan needs clean, quick ball if it is to function. The decision not to bring the offloading threat of Stuart McCloskey yet shows that Schmidt's plan will remain largely unchanged and means that the breakdown will be the most important battle ground.

Defensively, the head coach has taken a big risk in not replacing Les Kiss for the tournament.

Conditions might hamper their ambition, but Wales will surely look to echo the Argentinian template of winning the collisions in close and then getting the ball wide early to test the isolated Ireland defenders.


Payne's return to the midfield will help organise the rearguard action, but the line-speed must improve as a unit to stop the big Welsh carriers in their tracks.

If Ireland can manage the collision zone and squeeze Wales through the accurate kicking of Murray and Sexton, they'll have a chance, but the absence of O'Brien leaves the pack de-powered and lacking in world-class talent.

The presence of Schmidt and his clever game-plan has gotten them out of holes before, but a win in these circumstances would represent one of his greatest achievements.

Wales have the experience, the class, the bench and, perhaps most importantly, the power. They can bully Ireland on their own patch tomorrow afternoon. Nothing would give Gatland more satisfaction.

Verdict: Wales

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