Pregame Notes: Wales vs. Ireland

Epic encounters awaits in Principality Stadium

This week has felt like a month in anticipation for this test match. Wales are on the cusp of securing a farewell Guinness Six Nations championship, grand slam, and triple crown on Saturday but they face an Ireland side whose performance last weekend indicates that the side are a live threat for Welsh hopes. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the key match ups. D

Will the roof be opened or closed?

A war of words has ensued on whether the Principality Stadium’s roof will be opened or closed. Given the inclement weather forecast, it makes sense for the roof to be closed. The atmosphere in the stadium raises up a few notches when the roof is closed, the humidity in the air increases. Joe Schmidt is fully aware that the home crowd in attendance could play a massive role in this contest, the noise generated could impact set piece calls, communication with or without the ball as well as the support base rallying the Welsh team at times when they will be forced to defend their line. An interesting subplot ahead of this test match.

Beirne Baby Beirne

The introduction of Tadhg Beirne in the Ireland second row is a fascinating pregame note for this test match. Beirne’s stint with the Scarlets was standout and the Welsh rugby public will be all too aware of the skill set that Beirne could potentially bring to the contest. Solid line out operator, mobility and work rate around the fringes and then you throw in his ability at the breakdown and winning turnover ball. The Welsh back row unit is superb but the presence of Beirne adds an additional threat to nullify along with O’Mahony, Ryan, O’Brien and Stander. The breakdown with the likes of Josh Navidi present will be prime-time viewing.

Front Five Battle

This is a test match fixture where early platform from either front five could be potentially game defining. The Welsh front five has impressed throughout this campaign, particularly impressed with Adam Beard’s progression this season. The young, skillful second row has provided quality cameos to complement the assured workmanlike performance of the legend Alun Wyn Jones. The performance against England was immense particularly in the second half where the Welsh front five to a man took the mantle of responsibility. Endless ball carries, endless tackle count, endless work rate which forced England backwards.

Ireland’s front five unit looks potent as well. James Ryan has further enhanced his glowing reputation with assured performances. His maul management is elite at present; his work rate sets the tone for others to follow. It will be interesting to see whether there are any cohesion issues with Beirne early in this test match. Iain Henderson was supreme last weekend and both players gelled extremely well in set piece and all round play.

The scrummaging battle will be interesting given the test match experience in both units. Healy, Best and Furlong facing up against Evans, Owens and Francis. The Exeter Chiefs prop has impressed this season; his set piece execution has been to the fore. All hinges on the officiating of Angus Gardner who is prone not to dwell too much on the scrum resets.

Aerial Battle

The Ireland back three is buoyed by the return of full back Rob Kearney but questions have been raised of Ireland in the back three unit in recent test matches; some unconvincing aerial defensive work last week will be the cue for Wales to execute the aerial bomb onslaught from minute one. Ireland will look to pick their kicking aerial game at opportune times; the mode has been to keep ball in hand but the French test match saw Ireland execute more aerial kicks which exposed Ramos in the full back berth. I am not sure that Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams are that vulnerable in the aerial kick game so the pressure is on the Ireland back three to get their aerial defensive work right from minute one; otherwise it could be an arduous day for Ireland.

Can Ireland put pressure on Gareth Anscombe?

It is a key question to raise ahead of this test match. Anscombe has progressed nicely in this campaign and has provided Wales with a welcome selection poser at ten. Dan Biggar is a world class performer to close out this contest or rescue the test match for Wales if required on Saturday. Can Ireland’s back row unit create sufficient pressure to create unforced errors from the half back thus disrupting Wales attacking platform. Anscombe has shown resiliency aplenty in this campaign and this weekend will be another acid test of his international test match credentials.

Ireland attacking game variation

Wales will chop tackle Ireland at source so the key question is how Ireland vary their attacking play for this test match? Sean O’Brien inclusion adds abrasive ball carrying but it will require a bit more finesse from Ireland to unlock a resolute Welsh defensive line. Ireland will need to attack the inside channels with pace throughout; look to probe around the ruck area for decisive gain line breaks. Offloading game will also need to be adopted by Ireland at times to unsettle this Welsh side but Ireland’s offload play has been inconsistent at best during this season’s campaign. The drive it up approach simply will not work this weekend from Ireland so invention and creativity will be required from Murray, Sexton, Stockdale and Ringrose to win this test match for Ireland.

Verdict: Wales

Wales were my tip for this championship at the start of the tournament. The schedule setup perfectly and once they negotiated the Parisian trip in round one, they have not looked back. Their awesome performance against England in round three was immense and they safely negotiated the banana skin of Murrayfield in round four. This round is about keeping composure and staying patient. Wales are a side which will be asked serious questions by Ireland at various stages but Ireland’s attacking play for me may not be good enough to breakdown this side. Wales will execute and come away with the victory in the final quarter. An incredible test match beckons!

RBS 6 Nations: Wales 22 – 9 Ireland

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The wounded animal fought back last night

Ireland’s long shot chances of winning the RBS 6 Nations Championship are over after a 22-9 reversal to a Welsh who used the two weeks since the Scotland loss as motivation a plenty from the critics and supporters to produce their most effective display of the tournament. For Ireland, it was a case of several issues emerging early doors and limitations in squad depth ruthlessly exposed. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Friday night lights at the Principality Stadium. The decision to close the roof could was an unanimous decision from both sides which on another day could have generated column inches. There is something extra special in the Principality Stadium when the roof is shut, the atmosphere intensifies, humidity increases, the relentless noise in the stadium is something to behold and it is credit to both sides that this happened. It contributed massively to a physically uncompromising test match.

After stirring renditions of both national anthems, reality bite massively in the stunning tribute for Elli Norkett who tragically died in a road accident a couple of weeks ago. The piano music, the montage projected in the ground was stunning. More important things in life; we should live to enjoy games of this stature. A lady gone too soon. Rip.

Ireland actually started this contest with massive intent. Sean O’Brien signalling intent early with a crunching tackle. Biggar had a mixed start to the contest, trying to launch Jones and Davies down the channels but Ireland were reading these passing moves well intercepting at least two of these attempted passes. The Ireland objective was to take the crowd out of the equation and it worked in the first quarter with Stander and Zebo making good game line yards.

Stander had an impressive opening half. His ball carries were so effective that Wales were committing two or three players to the player when he had ball in hand. Stander’s superb line break (one of very few from Ireland on the night) should have reaped rewards. Stander spotted a gap outside Scott Williams and backed himself. The disappointing aspect to this line break was the lack of Ireland supporting runners for Stander. It was a solo effort, reinforcements were too slow to support; opportunity lost.

The move broke down but Ireland made the call to go for the line subsequently. Five meters out. Ireland lineout, surely Rory Best would hit Toner or Ryan to secure quality ball against a well drilled Wales unit led by the mercurial Alun Wyn Jones. The decision to go to the back of the lineout was baffling, even more so when Stander was in competition against Alun Wyn Jones. This was a complete mismatch in lineout ability. Wales stole the lineout, a recurring theme throughout the contest and a key Ireland try opportunity spurned.

The first quarter was controlled by Ireland but only Sexton’s penalty to show for their hard work. Wales had soaked up the pressure from the hosts and were ready to launch their back line with devastating effect. The first try of the contest was a superbly executed move. Owens line-out was on point, ball delivered to Webb with ultra efficiency. The line running of the midfield pair of Williams and Davies superb and caused Jackson to misread resulting in a superb line break. The ball was dispatched out wide, the pace of the move belied Wales’ apparent confidence issues in the back line as Halfpenny and North combined for North to use his physical strength to push aside the tackles of Earls and Zebo. The stadium roof lifted on that score. Wales were in the groove; a massively decisive score and exposed Ireland defensively as a whole team and not just Paddy Jackson.

Ireland won a fortunate penalty immediately after. Tipuric who was my man of the match, imperious work rate (18 tackles) and a constant threat at the breakdown was pinged unfairly. Jackson slotted the penalty over and Ireland were ahead 5-6 but the remainder of the half determined the result.

Ireland’s reliance on Conor Murray at nine has being well documented on this blog. The same issue is seen at provincial level. Murray is a standout performer, superb all round game but when the Patrickswell native clutched his arm after a ruck, the danger signs were there for Ireland management to make a switch on the player who was clearly not 100%. Murray’s arm was affecting all his facets of play; his passing from ruck was weak and loopy; he could not tackle and gave Wales a platform to attack where ever Murray was positioned.

Sexton was now off the pitch; a deliberate kill the ball close to Ireland’s line after yet another storming line break from Wales. Barnes was right on the ruck and a yellow card was duly deserved. Ireland management gambled on Murray, hoped he could go another ten minutes before Sexton come back to the field but it failed. Ireland were effectively down to thirteen players and the second half exchanges saw Wales’ second try.

The Welsh front pack who were dominant in the line out mauled close to the Ireland line and the ball was passed out wide to North who benefited from a lack of cover. Murray presence was null and void. Stander struggled to assist his Munster team mate and the score was leaked. Halfpenny slotted the conversion and suddenly Wales were in the ascendancy 15-6.

Ireland could not be faulted for effort last night; tackle count was high and try as they might, they faced a Welsh side who were defensively superb. Twenty-five phases and Wales never budged. Ireland’s passing movement were now lacking any bite or creativity. Isolated ball carriers. Front row players at first receiver was an ominous sign. The lack of supporting runners for ball carriers was distinctly lacking. Conservative game plan exposed even though Henshaw and Ringrose tried to create line breaks.

Wales know how to play Ireland defensively; first up tackles made, defensively at it all game and with sharp work on the breakdown. Barnes did not officiate the rucks which was music to the ears of the back row units. Wales were superb at the breakdown. Tipuric and Warburton were immense. Ireland’s lack of back row options at seven were relentlessly exposed. O’Brien was a distant second in the breakdown and his ball carries lacked any aggression as the player constantly looked to get to ground early doors. He was lucky to stay on the pitch.

Wales media and supporters called out their management for calling Ross Moriarty ashore against England. Ireland have their own discussion point with the decision to call ashore CJ Stander who was having a superb contest. His ball carrying threat was superior to O’Brien and Heaslip who struggled with ball carries (three knock ons). Both Leinster back rows were culpable for the second Welsh try. Sloppy pass exchange from the pair led to Wales kicking ball deep into Ireland territory and Murray (injury strickened) was forced out for a Wales lineout. O’Brien personally should have gone on sixty minutes; mystifying decision.

Ireland were looking to get back into the contest but discipline problems surfaced. Why Robbie Henshaw decided to join the Ireland ruck when it was moving towards the line only he will know? Henshaw was pinged for his entry to the ruck, looked marginal but it emphasized that Ireland had lost their composure even when executing set piece which Ireland pride themselves on. Frustrating penalty award and Wales knew it was their day.

Ireland in the final ten minutes were a deflated outfit, players were struggling to make themselves available for Marmion at nine who tried his best in the circumstances. His passing was on point but it became very predictable and one dimensional. The fact that he did not box kick once made Wales’ defensive reads pretty easy and allowed them to press Sexton more quickly. Sexton to his credit tried to conjure line breaks and territory with excellent aerial bombs which exposed North and Halfpenny with several spilled catches.

Wales finished the contest with momentum and scored their third try of the contest when Sexton’s drubber kick behind was blocked and Jamie Roberts was never going to be stopped from close range despite Ryan trying to assist his fly-half who was in the wars with several head knocks. 22-9 and the game was up. Wales even had an opportunity to score a bonus point at the end. It was an emphatic performance from Wales; the reaction of Edwards and Howley in the stands spoke volumes. There was immense pressure on this group of players and management. Wales delivered. Critics are quiet for another week.

Ireland can have no complaints on the result. Yet again, Ireland’s lack of expansive game plan was exposed. The ball carrier was an isolated figure; superb cameo efforts did not have the support from team colleagues to pass the ball to continue promising attacks. Henshaw is now a battering ram; no creativity or nous to unlock a resolute Welsh defense. Ringrose and Earls with ball in hand looked decent but it was the rarity rather than the norm. Kearney at full back was solid yet unspectacular with ball in hand. Zebo carried endless ball.

The scrum half position showed a distinct lack of confidence from Ireland management for Kieran Marmion who should have being on sooner. The lack of Ireland management confidence on the squad was woefully exposed. Schmidt had zero confidence in John Ryan and Niall Scannell. Both unused. The decision to haul Stander off instead of one of the ineffective Leinster back row players was damning. Tommy Bowe on the bench, short cameo and sorry sight to see the Monaghan man hauled off in double quick time.

The over reliance in Ireland’s half backs was exposed last night. It is down to Schmidt and Nucifora to improve the options in these positions. McGrath or Marmion at nine. James Hart coming to Munster next season will add plenty. Schmidt needs to identify a quality nine backup. His feelings on Marmion are clear. Given his tenure, Schmidt surely should have confidence in his twenty-three panel at his disposal. It was damning that he did not have this last night. Time to reflect for Ireland; change the game plan and identify more options throughout the squad is required. Hopefully, the media hordes question Schmidt on these points this week. The honeymoon is over finally.