Tuesday 20 March 2018

Giddy cheerleading washed away caution and realism

Tommy Conlon

The air was escaping, the balloon was sinking and Ireland's grand adventure at this World Cup was trickling to a halt long before the final whistle in Wellington. Twenty minutes in, a foreboding realisation began to settle like a pall over the proceedings: Wales, quite simply, had Ireland sussed.

They had their homework done, they had a strategy prepared. And now they were executing it. They gave the distinct impression of a team that knew exactly what it wanted to do at all times, with the ball and without it. They were clear-headed and unified. They had a communal sense of purpose and a total conviction about their work.

Ireland were favourites but it was the Welsh who oozed confidence as they navigated their way from situation to situation throughout the game. That was the startling thing: they played with the composure of a team that didn't doubt what the outcome would be. Instead of fearing Ireland they evidently fancied them -- this was a team they could beat.

Which just confirms why the build-up all last week was such a frustrating experience on this side of the Irish Sea. Once again, the whole country got carried away.

The cheerleading coming out of New Zealand was relentless. The wave of optimism that was launched after the defeat of Australia just picked up momentum and eventually washed away caution and realism. With Australia beaten, the talk was of World Cup semi-finals and finals.

When Italy were despatched last Sunday, any remaining checks and balances were thrown overboard. Once again, and despite a long history of bitter experiences in exactly this scenario, we were incapable of staying grounded.

Which is why one wanted to know last week: what are the Welsh making of all this giddy talk and heady excitement among the Irish? Are they, by any chance, thinking it's all a bit premature? Are they thinking this is shaping up very nicely, and very quietly, for us? There's little doubt now they felt an ambush coming on -- and Ireland were about to walk into it.

This is not to say that the Irish squad or management were complacent. They've all been around too long for that. But they couldn't control the pre-match climate. After Australia, the cat was out of the bag. Ireland were everybody's favourite second team. The press was swooning all over them. Their fans were colourful and charming. The great O'Driscoll generation was at last about to get its due reward.

The Welsh presumably were watching and listening and taking it all in; they were turning it into energy and motivation for themselves. And there wasn't a peep out of them, not even from Warren Gatland. They just got ready; they just waited to detonate.

And boy were they ready. They did to Ireland what Ireland had done to Australia. They hit the ground running and pretty much dictated terms and conditions from there. They played with a tempo and intensity which Ireland struggled to contain.

The biggest pre-match generalisation was that this would be about the gulf between Welsh youth and Irish experience. But if any single factor determined the result it was the gulf in power. Time and again the Welsh punched holes in the Irish defence, blasting over the gainline repeatedly, and seemingly whenever they chose to.

In the second minute Jamie Roberts, ball in hand, bowled Donncha O'Callaghan over like a skittle as they went swarming for their first try. As the match wore on, players like Roberts, North and Davies looked more and more like New Zealand backs as they crashed through the first tackle, gained heavy yardage and sucked in two or three defenders before being brought to ground.

Ireland simply did not have that same level of ball-carrying velocity. When they ran at the Welsh cover they were stopped. Wales, in fact, comfortably absorbed wave after wave of Irish attacks, slowing down each phase incrementally until a move that had started with pace and promise was slowed to a standstill. This was a conspicuous pattern: Irish moves repeatedly smothered until all momentum was gone and the turnover looked imminent. They could not cope with the strength and intensity of the Welsh defence. For 10 minutes after half-time they looked to have finally

got to grips with the Welsh. Keith Earls' try and Ronan O'Gara's wonderful conversion levelled the scores.

But it was an illusion. Wales had far more left in the tank. They needed a score and they went after it like a team that could engineer it, not just now, but any time they wanted. They came out of defence mode, switched into attack and instantly looked dangerous. Where Ireland were slowing down through their attacking phases, Wales looked to be accelerating through theirs.

Six minutes after Earls' try, Wales had replied with one of their own. It looked, for all the world, that they'd scored it not because they needed to, but simply because they could.

There was to be no glorious ending for the O'Driscoll/O'Connell/O'Gara generation. They pushed themselves to the limit, as they have done throughout their marvellous careers.

If this was their last stand at a World Cup they will be even more sickened than usual by the outcome. But in time they should be stoical about it too: they were beaten by a better team. That's all.


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