Ireland's Grand Slam aspirations came unstuck in Cardiff for myriad reasons but there is no reason to panic for Joe Schmidt's men
It took us a while to get over the news that Steve Walsh‘s business commitments meant he had to withdraw from big screen duty at the Millennium Stadium, and it will take us even longer to get over how his replacement, Wayne Barnes, refereed the scrum. That said, Ireland were the architects of their own downfall, and the Welsh fully-deserved their victory.
If Plan A doesn’t work …
Ireland’s success to date in the championship has been predicated on an accurate execution of a simple kick-chase game – their first three opponenets were unable to cope and Ireland profited accordingly. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton (and Ian Keatley) put up snow-laden bombs that the full-back heavy backline chased effectively. This time around, the Welsh back three were comfortable under the early barrage, getting on top early and forcing a change in tack
… switch to Plan B
From the moment they went 12-0 down, Ireland abandoned the kicking and held on to the pill – the biggest criticism Ireland had up to now was that they had only one way of playing and wouldn’t be able to cope if it didn’t work. Here, they showed admirable ability to switch tack when kick-chase wasn’t working – for the final hour, Ireland dominated possession and territory by keeping the ball in hand. However, they didn’t have the platform or personnel to do what England did and heavily out-score Wales in that time.
As is wont to happen at inconvenient times, Ireland’s lineout fell apart – Rory Best‘s darts went awry and the Welsh forwards seemed to have worked out the calls. At scrum-time, Ireland had a major advantage once Samson Lee went off – but Barnes took exception to Jack McGrath (and other unknown elements of Ireland’s scrum) and Ireland couldn’t profit.
Another facet of Ireland’s play previously in the championship was their dominance of the ruck – against England they won an absurd 116 of 117 of their own rucks – but that didn’t happen here. The Welsh took ball into contact with one or two helpers on hand to secure quick return, and when the Irish took it in, Sam Warburton and co made it filthy. Ireland haven’t missed Chris Henry this season, but his dark art mastery would have helped here.
Ireland were reliant upon one-out rumbles to make metres. There was much talk of the huge tackle count that Warburton (24) and Luke Charteris (31) put in, but not many of them were fingertip try savers, with nearly all around the gainline against static runners. The two most prominent line-breaks were by none other than Paul O’Connell – while it had the Irish crowd on their feet, it won’t have worried the Welsh – O’Connell is among the slowest carriers in the team and the rest of the carriers in the pack were nullified.
Iain Henderson again made a big impact off the bench and one wonders if Schmidt might think about starting him – we’ve always preferred the Belichick approach to selection, making changes from a position of strength rather than have them forced upon us – but the selection wasn’t suited to the tactics of the last 65 minutes. Equally, it didn’t help that Johnny Sexton put in his worst display for Ireland in years, looking a distracted pale shadow of his best – the Sexton of his 2011-13 Leinster pomp would have relished this situation, but he looked overcome.
Ou est le guile?
Outside Sexton, the backs all worked hard, but there wasn’t much in the way of creativity – when England were on top against Wales, George Ford and Jonathan Joseph took the ball to the gainline and went through gaps with soft hands and subtle lines. The aggressive Welsh defence didn’t help, but the backs seemed to be crying out for some nifty footwork and change-up of approach – Jared Payne seemed to be the only one offering something different.
With Felix Jones staying rooted to the bench, one wondered if Schmidt regretted not drafting in the likes of Keith Earls to try a different approach – we’ve worried about Jones’ selection offering inflexibilty of approach before, and so it appeared. Against the Scots, we’ll need to score tries and bolster our points difference to win the championship – England ran them ragged targeting late passes through the holes around Finn Russell and with more composure and awareness would have ran in five or six tries. Trucking it up the middle would probably be enough to win the game, but that’s not what we ned from our trip to Murrayfield.