Sunday 25 February 2018

Wales in a tight space for Ireland under lights

Wales interim head coach Rob Howley. Photo: PA
Wales interim head coach Rob Howley. Photo: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The press conference after the Italy game in Stadio Olimpico wasn't long running when Conor O'Shea threw out a comparison between Wales and Ireland. He framed it the context of how both had played against Italy, rather than what might happen when they met up, but you couldn't help but infer from the latter.

O'Shea's version of events was that Wales had beaten his side, while Ireland had taken them to the cleaners. We weren't to know then how things would pan out in round three of this Six Nations, but, as is the way in a compressed tournament, two wrong turns in succession and you've lost the sat nav.

Certainly Rob Howley is struggling for his bearings. Eddie Jones took the gold medal last weekend for his bad grace following the grief imposed on his side by Italy, but Howley had a foot on the podium for the way he dismissed the Scots the previous day. He could have credited them with scoring two tries that were well-conceived and well-executed - the handling under pressure by Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, to put Tim Visser over in the corner, was first class. Instead he described them as "soft."

If the Scots did well under pressure then it will be interesting to see how Howley does now. Four years ago when his boss, Warren Gatland, was ruled out by Lions selection, Howley had a great time. Wales won the Championship on the last day, beating England 30-3 in Cardiff.

"This is better than the Grand Slam last year," Howley said at the time. "We were outstanding."

In fairness they had got off to a brutal start, against Ireland, and then put together four wins back-to-back. The Ireland defeat had been their eighth in a row. Nobody was envisaging it ending with a Championship title that would draw Wales level with England on 25.

The mood music now has a touch of the Jaws soundtrack about it for there is more than face-saving at stake. In 2015 Wales found themselves in the World Cup shark pool, alongside England, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay. The result ultimately that pushed them over the edge and into that group, via the rankings, was one of those money-spinning add-ons that they like to shoehorn into their season - in this case defeat by Australia at the tail end of 2013.

As it turned out they would get through their 2015 pool, but would rather not to have to repeat that degree of difficulty - which was especially costly in injuries. So staying in the top eight world-ranked teams would be a good idea. The pool draw for RWC 2019 in Japan takes place in two months. Currently Wales are in seventh place - ahead of France, whose schedule takes them to Rome next weekend, and then they have Wales in Paris. Not a lot of room for manoeuvre there.

Howley has two pressing issues: the shape of his attack; and the players asked to effect it. Coincidentally when his side were hurrying England out the gate in 2013 it was Alex Cuthbert, with two tries, who was the hero of the hour. He's slipped a long way from that position now, to the point where Howley is under pressure to ditch him altogether.

The only changes to the Wales starting backline over the three Championship games has seen Cuthbert replace the injured George North for the England game. North was back in time for Edinburgh but was a mile off the pace. And ditto Leigh Halfpenny.

The Wales full-back looks a shadow of the metronome who kept the Lions on target in Australia in 2013. Clearly he can still strike a ball, but the Toulon experience doesn't seem to have done much for him as a rugby player. So Liam Williams, with a knack for scoring from anywhere, is a good bet to shift from the wing to 15. This may be a straight swap with Halfpenny or it might involve going crazy and drafting in new boy Steff Evans.

Up front it's hard to think of Taulupe Faletau being worth only a place on the bench, but Howley wants the youth and physicality of Ross Moriarty, who sails very close to the wind. There is an argument for boosting Wales's carrying power by playing both, and sacrificing Justin Tipuric. Unless the referee is inclined to ref the team with the ball as much as the team without it there are times when Tipuric looks like a luxury.

And they are a long way removed from that kind of place now. Their position is compounded by sticking to a game that is easy enough to read, and predicated on tiring out the opposition. When Scotland came back against them in Edinburgh last weekend the Welsh creativity bank had closed for the day. It will need to be open for business and work ing overtime on Friday night.

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