Wales went to Dublin desperate for a win to rejuvenate a World Cup warm-up campaign that had started so limply against the opposition at the start of August. They succeeded on many fronts...
The full-on Friendly.
When Ireland faced Wales on Saturday it felt as though the Rugby World Cup had started early. The fitness sessions were over, the training bibs were back in the cupboard and the training cones have been restacked – this was a Test match. With both teams virtually at full strength, it was clear from the team announcement that Gatland wanted to win this game and win it they did. The Welsh scrum was a major positive, and the lineout, whilst not perfect, was stable enough to allow Wales consistent catch and drive opportunities in the Irish 22. At times it felt strange watching Wales out ‘Ireland’, Ireland, with a series of heavy mauls which eventually allowed Justin Tipuric to collapse over the line in the 23rd minute.
Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams shut down Ireland’s midfield and forced Jonathan Sexton into an uncharacteristically ‘shanky’ kicking game.Whilst Justin Tipuric had the sort of performance that leads me to believe that he isn’t a flanker from Trebanos, but a supernatural ‘shape shifter’ not of this earth – he was everywhere. All of which was improved upon by the mesmerising accuracy of Leigh Halfpenny, whose kicking action is so painstakingly repetitive that it can leave you in a Paul McKenna like trance. Of course, we can’t read too much into a friendly, but it does mean that Wales are now ranked higher than England, the hosts, for a few days depending on results at Twickenham – and many people will read a lot into that.
Tipuric. The complete performance
Against Ireland, in Cardiff, Justin Tipuric showed us just how good a ‘back’ he is. This weekend, he showed how impressive a forward he is. It was a remarkable performance in which he completed 19 tackles, missed none, and morphed into a human ‘Pritt Stick’ on the ground. He stuck to everything and everyone Irish. If he wasn’t hanging onto Irish ball, he was hanging on to Irish ankles.
Despite expelling so much energy at the tackle area, his link play was immaculate as ever, always scooping up loose ball and looking to pass it to a player who was already in forward motion – a trait which all Southern Hemisphere flankers execute so well. The debate will continue as to the perfect blend in the Welsh backrow, but it is a debate not a problem. To have Warburton, Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate means that Wales have as much quality in the backrow as anyone, barring the All Blacks, in the Rugby World Cup. Hat tip Mr Tipuric.
Tomas Francis rock steady.
The tighthead position has recently created sleepless nights for those in Wales. Many a Welsh supporter has woken at midnight, sweating and clutching their chest at the thought of Samson Lee not making the final squad due to injury (happily they now know he is in). But Tomas Francis’s display against Ireland was like Nytol for Welsh rugby supporters. It was as reassured a tighthead debut as one could wish for. Despite Ireland’s loosehead and hooker repeatedly targeting Francis, he rarely moved an inch. At times it looked like his boots had been sunk into the foundations of the Avivs Stadium such was the solidity of the Welsh scrum.
Prior to kick off many were suggesting that Tomas Francis was a pure scrummager and nothing more – which is perfect. That’s exactly what Wales need during the next few weeks , a tighthead that can nullify the powerful English front row and look to dominate the Wallaby front three. Despite being caught out of position defensively on occasion, Saturday saw Francis take a big step up the Welsh front ladder and overtake both Aaron Jarvis and Scott Andrews.
NB This is a metaphorical ladder of course; science is yet to unearth a metal strong enough to support those three on a ladder
Wales defence against Ireland was one of the most impressive of the Shaun Edwards era. They made a staggering 204 tackles, completing an astonishing 94% successfully. At times the Welsh defensive line was so tight that it could have stopped a team of plankton crossing the gainline. Alun Wyn Jones completed 16 tackles, Dan Lydiate 23, Justin Tipuric 20 and Faletau 16.
Luke Charteris and Paul James both made 12 tackles having played less than half of the game. Tipuric may have got the plaudits, but in reality five individuals were worthy of man of the match – particular Alyn Wyn and Lydiate whose selfless defensive work often goes unseen.
Jamie Robert and Scott Williams gel
The injury to Jonathan Davies was a concern for Wales pre World Cup – although nothing it seems that Wasaike Naholo’s doctor couldn’t fix with some Fijian leaves. Whilst Scott Williams is a powerful carrier and accurate distributor, concerns remained over his ability to plug the gapping defensive hole left by Davies. This is no longer such a concern. Roberts and Williams were impressive against Ireland. They missed just one tackle between them and pressured Jonathan Sexton into one of the poorest kicking performances of his Test career.
Such was the defensive squeeze on Ireland’s midfield that Robbie Henshaw and Luke Fitzgerald struggled to carry the ball 30 yards between them. But it wasn’t just the Welsh centres’ defence which impressed, so too did their carrying and link play. Roberts carried the ball with his usual insane determination to get over the gain line, which often leaves him carrying men on his back like a nursery assistant pretending to be a horse with children on his shoulders. Whilst Williams offered a subtlety of inside passing and lateral movement that we rarely see from Gatland’s teams. A big positive for Wales.