Sunday 19 November 2017

Wales should brace themselves for space invaders

Ireland will get in their hosts' faces in Cardiff, and the bombs will keep on raining down, writes Brendan Fanning

Ireland’s hopes hinge on Johnny Sexton’s hamstring
Ireland’s hopes hinge on Johnny Sexton’s hamstring
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

IN the piece above, Tommy Bowe recalls the feeling of emptiness that settled on the Ireland camp in Wellington in October 2011.

They had just lost to Wales, a quarter-final tie they felt sure they would win, and with that the alluring prospect of breaking new ground in a World Cup went south. Given that we were fairly low down on the planet at the time, that direction was apposite.

The gloom lingered for a good while after that. It wasn't the widespread indignation that attended the premature exit from the previous tournament, when Eddie O'Sullivan's coaching reputation was shredded, but it was palpable all the same.

There was another key difference: O'Sullivan was irreparably and unfairly damaged by that World Cup experience; but for Declan Kidney - the pilot when Ireland flew to the 2011 gig in New Zealand - there was space and time to recover. And, best of all, who should fetch up in Lansdowne Road to kick off the Six Nations just over three months later only the same Wales. Or rather, a depleted version of the team that had won in Wellington, with four of their starting pack missing.

Naturally enough we expected Ireland to lace up their working boots and climb into the opposition. Instead they slipped on comfy shoes and pottered about the place, giving Wales free run of the gaff. At the time, defence coach Les Kiss had become attack coach Les Kiss, or both. When Bowe was prodded last week about this game it took a moment for it all to come flooding back. Then he conceded that Ireland had been "slow out of the blocks."

If you watched Wales sink Philippe Saint Andre a little further in the merde in Paris last weekend you might have been reminded of that day in Dublin three years ago. Remember, Wales arrived to Stade de France unsure where they stood, having looked bankrupt against England in the first round, and then the beneficiaries of a late cash injection against Scotland in Murrayfield. Time for France to put some turbo on the line-speed, you would have thought. And instead they gave their opponents the freedom of Paris.

It won't happen in Cardiff. As a measure of Ireland's progress under Joe Schmidt, that 2012 game in Lansdowne Road is useful. At least six of the starters will be different on Saturday - including retirees Brian O'Driscoll and Stephen Ferris, along with Gordon D'Arcy and Donncha O'Callaghan, who no longer wait by the phone - but the shift in the ground is enormous.

The kicking stats are box office at the moment, but two things get lost in this: first, the accuracy of these drone strikes is becoming an art form which requires skill and planning; and second, it is a means to an end. We won't go to the World Cup as South Africa did successfully in 2007, with a zero risk strategy supported by a brutish pack and top of the range goal-kicking. We don't have the firepower to sustain that. We will, however, have a very good handle on locking down our own half of the field - which already is evident - and augmenting it with a higher tempo game in attack that doesn't rely slavishly on phase play.

The question is when we get to see the shutters come up on the second bit. The corresponding fixture two years ago was a day blessed with glorious sunshine streaming into the Millennium Stadium. Ireland matched it with a first-half performance that left the home crowd shell-shocked. If you recall, Ireland's defence got sloppier as the game went on, leading to unnecessarily high stress levels at the finish. Certainly you'd back the current crew not to lose that accuracy in their defensive chores, but the first bit?

Schmidt's starting point will be to pick up where the team left off against England: ruthless efficiency about getting out of their own half, and accuracy off the tee. The whole show, however, is predicated on Johnny Sexton's hamstring mending in time. To have Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip ready to go is a bonus, and the likelihood is that Sean O'Brien and Jared Payne will be in the same boat.

Sexton, though, is a different deal. The inescapable downside of his incredible form after a three-month lay-off is that the prospect of his not being there isn't worth thinking about. And you wouldn't have said this at the start of the season. The list of names in the queue behind him included Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley - three international 10s ready to step in and do a decent job.

Such was the accuracy of the shifts Sexton has put in, however, that the scale of the drop to Madigan last week felt enormous. For an outhalf to come off the bench in a Test match and immediately strike the right note is extraordinarily difficult. Following someone of Sexton's class is like reading sheet music for the first time.

This adds to the usual stuff about the 10 being a target for the opposition. Dan Biggar is a fine player who has bided his time to get a jump on Rhys Priestland, but if he has to quit early on Saturday it will be a mild tremor compared to the earthquake on the green side of the line if Sexton doesn't last. Or if he doesn't make the starting line.

It would be unusual then if Warren Gatland didn't ramp up the pressure on this issue. When it comes to the après match, seemingly the Welsh and the Irish get on better than anybody, and after a long night following last year's game one of the Welsh players ended up happily on the Ireland team bus. But on the field there is always lots of bite.

So it may be to Ireland's advantage that there has been a change of referee for the fixture. The players probably have fond memories of Steve Walsh in Paris last season (he withdrew seemingly because of business commitments) but his replacement Wayne Barnes has more recent, positive history with Ireland.

In the win over France he penalised the home team 11 times - about three over budget - but aside from issues early on, where three of the first four penalties were for players holding on at the tackle, Ireland got to grips with what he wanted and didn't want. This should make the job a bit easier for analyst Mervyn Murphy, who presents a dvd on refereeing patterns in the week of the game, but it would be worth going over the maul again.

Ireland hoodwinked the hapless French on this issue, but Wales will be cuter. It's unlikely that Shaun Edwards will go on another daft rant about the choke tackle but they'll have something to throw into the mix, all of it aimed at influencing either Sexton or Barnes.

In the cauldron of Cardiff on Saturday then, it will be good to have an experienced referee. Ireland need to make it easy for him. Keep doing what they've been doing on the discipline front. And don't give their hosts room to breathe.

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