Tuesday 16 January 2018

Tony Ward: Evolving Welsh can punish Joe Schmidt's reluctance to loosen the shackles

You can be sure Wales captain Sam Warburton will lead his team by example tomorrow (PA)
You can be sure Wales captain Sam Warburton will lead his team by example tomorrow (PA)
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The one certainty is uncertainty. Right now, in Paris, Edinburgh and Dublin, coaches, players and fans haven't a breeze what to expect of their sides from the opening series of Six Nations matches.

In all the jargon doing the rounds, the two most relevant relate to optimism and momentum.

Whether you're a born optimist or pessimist, whether the glass of life is half full or half empty, come Six Nations time this is going to be your year. At least so the perennial feeling goes.

I feel no different now then I did when watching the old black and white TV on post-Christmas Saturday, knee high to a grasshopper.

Even in the sad, particularly bad times for Irish rugby, never a Five Nations came around that you didn't feel this was set to be it. This was the year the daring deeds of '48 would be put to bed forever. We were and continue to be eternal optimists, and you can count me to this day in that number.

I have an anxious feeling about this one and yet something (obviously irrational) somewhere is telling me we'll get over the Welsh and then it's all guns blazing for Paris and London next up.

Oh we of little faith. Nobody knows what to expect of themselves, of the opposition or of each other ahead of the big kick-off. But come 5.00pm tomorrow, some sort of barometer will have been established. With that early yardstick comes confidence, and with that confidence comes momentum.

In this unique tournament, momentum is everything, and don't let anybody attempt to convince you otherwise.


Right now, the players and coaches are in a vacuum of uncertainty. Yes they will have followed the party line all week in the build-up and said all the right things but deep down in the pit of their stomachs they are feeling the pain of insecurity.

That the World Cup is number one needs little elaboration, but it also represents a four-yearly escape the Six Nations does not.

This is real, it's in your mind and in your stomach and it hurts. It is horrible but exhilarating. Bear in mind those of a different generation did it for the love of the game. And you know what, take away the money and so still would this crop now.

But back to matters immediate and this Irish journey into the unknown.

Warren Gatland has declared his hand early and I admire him for that. It declares an inner confidence. Here we are, you can analyse us to death, now come and get us.

That is precisely what Joe Schmidt will have been doing. I hate all this cloak and dagger stuff, but if he feels it gives him a psychological edge then so be it. Both Kiwi coaches have hinted at a slight deviation in strategy but no brain transplant just yet. And for this particular head to head, I get it.

Just like Welsh folk, I dearly want to see us develop a strategy beyond power and physicality. Rob Howley suggested at the Welsh squad announcement that he wants players "to scan more and make an extra pass before taking contact".

Yes of course there is a place for kick and chase and choke-tackling too but as a representation of how we play the game in this country, there has to be more.

Yet given the circumstances post-World Cup with retirements with injuries and with little time to prepare, a win tomorrow is paramount. If we are to feed in to momentum thereby developing confidence to expand, then winning first up is the only game in town.

Lose to the Welsh and with the French and English on the road to follow, one of the sharpest intellects in world rugby is in danger of losing that mantle. Such is the fickle world of professional rugby.

One thing Schmidt is particularly good at is in applying a strategy appropriate to the opposition. We lost to Argentina in the main due to factors beyond his control, but where we did come up short was in the narrowness of our defensive line. The Welsh are not the Pumas in attacking terms but they will have dissected that match to the nth degree.

The loss of five key players, particularly Paul O'Connell, was central to that defeat, but life moves on. As someone said in midweek, "it's the same camp minus that intimidating stare".

You can identify with that sentiment, but the proof as to just how much we have moved on will be in the performance tomorrow, specifically that of the leaders beyond the one wearing the arm band.

Rory Best's appointment as captain in the immediate short term was a no-brainer and for sure he will not disappoint. The challenge now is presented to others to stand up.

It is time to walk the walk, and here I am referring to Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.

It is up to these three in particular and I would like to think Devin Toner too to make the new skipper's maiden voyage so much easier through deed and action.

The bottom-line objective is a win this time out. Nobody is demanding a return to the drawing board or a shredding of the blueprint that has served us so well, but there is a relevant message in Howley's statement of Welsh intent.

For Schmidt the things that work we hold but making that extra pass or attempting to stay on feet that little bit longer in search of support is eminently achievable without reinventing the wheel or indeed ourselves.

This has all the makings of a war of attrition. It may not be pretty and it certainly could swing either way.

That said, despite the significant loss of Leigh Halfpenny, there is a settled look to the Welsh side combining the physical through Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau with the fluid a la Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. And for O'Connell in this fixture in times past read Alun-Wyn Jones now.

The bookies suggest us the odds on favourite at 4/6 with the Welsh at 11/8. It is their business and they seldom get it wrong but aside from home advantage this is a Celtic clash nigh-on impossible to decipher other than the physicality, intensity and pressure on space guaranteed.

I'm going with head against heart and taking Gatty and Wales to make that momentum-setting start.

Verdict: Ireland 16 Wales 21

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