Wales emerged victorious from a titanic battle between two Celts intent on gaining bragging rights at the Principality Stadium, but what did we learn?
Wales win using the whole pitch
During the past three to four seasons under Warren Gatland, the only time that the Welsh players have been allowed to use the wider limits of the pitch is during the lap in which they say thanks to the fans. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case against Ireland. As throughout the whole tournament, the basic platforms were good. The scrum and lineout were both test standard, the scrum ran at 80% (4 out of 5) and the lineout at an immaculate 100%. Lions standard breakdown work from Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric supplied Rhys Webb with ball that was as rapid as his decision making and slowed Irish ball down to a ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ rapidity of thought. Wales’ defence was solid, particularly some vital spot tackling from Liam Williams, and they defended Ireland’s maul as well as anyone ever has.
But defending the ball hasn’t been the issue during this tournament. Using it has. And that is what changed. Jon Davies didn’t the kick the ball once in 80 minutes – a weapon upon which he is, at times, overly reliant. A new emphasis on moving the ball wide, more quickly, put George North into spaces, not faces. The result was North having a ‘YouTube’ game, not the ‘YouWhat?’ game from two weeks prior. Rhys Webb continued his immaculate form, blending rapid narrow channel runs with expansive passing – his delivery for North’s first try was exemplary. But perhaps the greatest praise must come, not for expansive play from the backs (from whom it should be expected} but from Rob Evans’ remarkable ‘miss-four’ – a pass easily as good as the one thrown by Jordie Barrett that morning for the Hurricanes against the Chiefs. This was a much-needed victory and progression in style for Wales and will have gone some way to calming the understandably twitchy Welsh supporters and media.
Awesome maul defence
George North will get the front page plaudits, largely because a maul defence doesn’t make for a great cover photo, but it was Wales’ maul defence which deserved the full colour spread. To beat Ireland you simply have to stop their five metre ‘catch and drive’ – and Wales did. The efficiency of Wales’ maul defence lay largely in the variety of tactics that were used.
Mixing up the immediate tackling of the first carrier, with contesting of the Irish lineout, meant that Ireland couldn’t simply go through the motions and were forced to approach each situation differently. Nullifying the Irish maul isn’t the sole reason that Ireland failed to score a single try in 80 minutes, but it is a significant factor, and one for which the Welsh team and coaches deserve praise.
Tipuric and Warburton
Three months ago they were referred to as Tipuric or Warburton. The oil and water of Welsh rugby. Many sadly loathed one and loved the other. The Irish performance confirmed that they are now not only a pair, but arguably the best pair in the championship. Their groundwork was immaculate and visibly slowed Ireland’s ruck speed. The slowed ruck speed and an injured Conor Murray meant that the hugely impressive Jonny Sexton had to quite literally try every play in his considerable book to find space on the field.
Together, the pair completed 41 tackles (21 for Warburton, 20 for Tipuric) forcing Jamie Heaslip ever wider in the search for easier carries and even reduced the mightily impressive CJ Stander to what for him, will be regarded as a standstill. The question of Warburton or Tipuric is over. The answer is both.
Jamie Roberts – the perfect man for the perfect moment
These are unusual times for Jamie Roberts. The man around whom nearly a decade of Welsh rugby, and numerous successful campaigns, were built, now finds himself on the bench. It is a moment and a role that comes to all great players and it was perhaps fitting to see him score such a defining try for Wales. Many had questioned his selection as an ‘impact’ player from the bench, but if there was one player who you would hand pick to grab a loose ball, eight yards from the posts, and drive over the line, it was Roberts.
With the game having naturally slowed after 77 mins of lung burn, it was the charge down of Taulupe Faletau which allowed the ball to fall into Roberts’ hands. It was then the unenviable task of Jonny Sexton to hop on Roberts back, like a child playing with his dad, and be carried over the line. Vintage Roberts, unstoppable
We need to change the way we watch rugby
With the bulk of rugby’s in-play time taken up by rucks and mauls it is time that we changed the way that rugby is televised. As with golf and putting, rugby’s rucks and mauls are a game within a game and require a zoomed-in shot to be fully appreciated. The problem is, when the camera zooms in to the ruck or maul, the full expanse of the pitch is lost and so is the viewers appreciation of what is happening from a wider perspective. The simple solution is for broadcasters to provide a ‘ruck and maul’ app which can be viewed on a tablet or PC in conjunction with the TV.
The app would show only a close-up view of the breakdown and its intricacies. Many people already use a ‘second screen’ for watching sport – one showing social media or betting applications for instance. The ‘ruck and maul’ application would also add to the in-stadium experience – let’s face it, most of us have to watch the game again on leaving the stadium to get the full picture. This new format would also aid the understanding of the game to newcomers, who may wonder why Sam Warburton received such praise for his performance against Ireland, without having seemingly carried the ball a great distance or made a break. Good idea? Tweet me @thepaulwilliams with your thoughts.