A weekend which did not fail to disappoint. Ireland just about got over the line over a determined Welsh challenge in an exciting test match. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Ireland performance.
Ireland win but areas to improve upon
The moment Gareth Anscombe threw that sweeping pass out to the wing, it was heart in the mouth stuff. Jacob Stockdale had committed to coming inside, he needed to intercept the ball, failure to do so and Wales potentially had a game winning try well and truly on. Stockdale has to be commended for finishing off the intercept to make the game safe but it should not have come to that for Ireland to secure this test match victory.
The possession count for Ireland in this test match was excellent (78% in the opening period). Five tries scored against a Welsh defensive who have traditionally nullified the threat from Ireland. The back row produced a stellar performance to nullify the threat of Josh Navidi and contributed with endless ball carries to setup excellent Ireland field position so how come did Wales score three tries given limited opportunities?
The defensive shape of Ireland in the second half particularly last quarter was ragged. McFadden exposed several times in that last quarter due to lack of defensive cover. The Welsh third try will be a video analysis 101 moment for Ireland. McFadden’s decision to become the second tackler was fair enough but his inability to stop the offload was poor allowing Steff Evans ample time and space to score to setup a dramatic climax.
Rob Kearney at full back was exposed on more than one occasion in the aerial battle. Wales’ aerial kick strategy was on point in the opening period of this contest as Biggar executed his kicking to a high level. Stockdale is such a threat ball in hand but his defensive skill set is a work in progress; his decision making in defensive position will need to improve but the attacking threat is sublime.
Sexton with ball in hand was excellent but his kicking off the tee was a mixed bag. 3/7 off the tee told its own story. The first two penalty kicks were unconvincing at best and that set the tone for the day on this aspect of play. His decision to take a quick tap and go deep in the second half could have had massive consequences. Three points blown and potentially an injury worry with Conor Murray leg trapped in a ruck.
What worked for Ireland? The resiliency of the side again was to the fore. After a nervy opening where Halfpenny was unerring in his opening penalty attempt. Ireland went up the other end of the pitch to score. Sexton’s superbly identifying Halfpenny out of position setting up Stockdale for an excellent score. This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Wales scored. Ireland responded.
The newcomers to the Ireland side rose to the occasion. Andrew Porter in the front row provided solidity at set piece and was busy in open play with his tackle count. Chris Farrell was sensational in the thirteen channel. The Munster center was prominent from kickoff, rising high to win an initial aerial challenge and also was the fulcrum to create line breaks. A worthy man of the match winner.
James Ryan and Devin Toner were excellent in the Ireland second row. Line out accuracy. John Ryan’s scrummaging was superb at the death to yield a critical penalty in the last quarter. Everyone contributed to this side. Squad depth issues not seen.
The back play at times was sensational. Keith Earls complemented Jacob Stockdale with several eye-catching breaks. His pace, ability to create try scoring opportunities from nothing seen to full effect in the second half when his kick on the sideline in the second half nearly saw a try being scored.
Conor Murray provided leadership throughout and his passing was on point. His ability to slot home the vital penalty on seventy-six minutes showed massive courage and determination given his injury scare moments before. Murray did need the post to assist but the kick needed to go over and he stepped over superbly. His aerial kicks saw productive results after a shaky opening quarter.
Looking further afield
Fourteen points after three games is an excellent return from Ireland but Joe Schmidt and management will know that there is plenty of scope for improvement. However, the squad depth question prior to the Welsh contest was answered emphatically. There is squad depth to fill in several positions in the second row, front row, back row areas.
Questions do still remain with regards to the ten jersey until Carbery gets the game time to show his worth. The cameo of McFadden was a mixed bag defensively and is an area that needs to be evaluated. The full back position as well needs to be examined. Rob Kearney is solid but we need other players to stake a claim to the jersey. A summer tour to Australia hopefully will address these concerns.
However for now. this has being an excellent start to the tournament for Ireland Rugby. Three wins from three sets up the team well but with challenges against the live threat of Scotland and also the perennially strong England at Twickenham, the Championship and Grand Slam is still very much wide open.