February 13, 2016
Going into the game Ireland were missing 10 players that would almost certainly have been in the match day squad. Healy, Ross, Moore, Henderson, O'Mahony, O'Brien, Henry, Fitzgerald, Bowe and Kearney. That's 7 forwards and 3 backs. Of those 7 forwards 5 would have started had they been fit. So over half of the starting pack was missing. That is a huge number of absentees and we haven't even mentioned Paul O'Connell's retirement. And as the saying goes, forwards decide who wins the game. Missing so many put Ireland at a distinct disadvantage from the off. Wales on the other hand had a fairly settled side with the majority of their starters available to them. This was going to be a day when Joe Schmidt and his coaches earned their pay checks, or not as the case may be.
Ireland came out of the blocks quickly. The opening quarter was played at serious pace, with the ball in play for long stretches. From their first possession inside the 2 minute mark Ireland made their first line break of the day. Simon Zebo picked a great line to tie up Welsh defenders and Sexton made the break on the next phase. The passage of play lasted for 19 phases before Wales were pinged for offside and Ireland opened the scoring. This was to be the pattern for the opening 20-30 minutes with attacking passages lasting over a dozen phases for both sides. While this was in part due to some fantastic rucking from both teams it was also in part due to the referee, Jerome Garces, being very lax at the breakdown when it came to the attacking sides. Players were allowed to join the ruck at all sorts of angles as well as go off their feet to seal off the ball. Both sides took advantage and the game was a very open affair as a result.
What was very encouraging from Ireland was their willingness to go through the hands and look for the gaps. People had been preparing themselves for a kick-fest in light of last years tactics and the weather forecast. And while Wales did look to the kicking game somewhat when Dan Biggar was on, his departure all but saw an end to that approach. Ireland used Henshaw and Payne in the centre to carry into contact against a big Welsh centre pairing regularly, but also used them as screen runners at times too. There were options open to Ireland on numerous occasions which kept the Welsh defence guessing.
For their part the Irish defence in the opening 30 minutes was excellent as well, keeping Wales scoreless despite plenty of possession inside the Ireland 22. Ireland's discipline in this area of the park was also a high point in that period. We soaked up everything Wales had to throw at us and gave them nothing in return. There were a small number of errors that brought Wales back into the game. Zebo was beaten in the air a couple of times and put a kick out on the full. Ireland then lost a line-out, Zebo somehow managed to miss Liam Williams completely when chasing a clearing kick and then Murray put the ball out on the full himself. The defence held firm though and Ireland raced out to a 13-0 lead, including a try from Murray, and were looking relatively comfortable.
But Wales are too good a side to be kept out of the game for long. A few more errors from Ireland in the final 10 minutes of the first half opened the door for Gatlands men again. And there's only so many times you can open the door before they capitalise. Keith Earls was unfortunate to concede a penalty for the tip tackle on Liam Williams. It was the correct call, but Williams squirmed in an attempt to get out of the tackle which led to him being up ended the way he was. Earls could do nothing to prevent the penalty. And Wales opened their account.
Then, having covered huge swathes of ground in a kick chase and working hard to get back into position on the right wing, Andrew Trimble got caught with a clever kick in behind from Jonathan Davies. The Ulster man was forced to turn and chase back but having worked so hard in the immediate build up was slower to get back than he needed to be. Wales won a 5m scrum when Trimble was forced to ground the ball in goal. From here the Welsh scrum piled the pressure on Ireland and Faletau was able to cross for a well taken score. Ireland went in 13-10 up at half time, but those final 10 minutes were costly.
In the second half Wales began where they left off drawing level after Ireland conceded a penalty at the ruck. Ireland continued to show real invention in attack but an impressive defensive display from Wales kept them off the scoreboard. The best opportunity being another Sexton break where he was able to find Andrew Trimble out wide. Simon Zebo was running a support line but unfortunately wasn't able to get into a position to take the final pass. Prior to that the Munster winger, playing at full-back, himself had made a superb break through the middle off a relieving kick from Wales. Again though the Welsh defence was able to hold out until Ireland lost the ball forward. Ireland may not have had as much possession and territory as Wales in the second half, but they were creating far more clear cut chances.
Wales managed to take the lead inside the last 10 minutes after some good work from Ireland at the breakdown ensured a turnover, but some poor ball protection at the very next breakdown led to a penalty for holding on. Priestland took what was a difficult kick at goal to put Wales ahead for the first time in the game, 13-16. The ball was barely back in play though and this time it was Wales that made the costly error. A poor box kick from Williams led to an offside in a kickable position. Despite having taken a heavy knock Sexton stepped up and slotted the kick to bring it back to 16-16.
And that's how the game ended. Both sides attempted to attack from deep after the clock went red but neither could find the gap to get good field position. While a draw isn't exactly a great result for either side there were plenty of positives out there from an Ireland perspective. The way the side was looking to play was the main one and there were a lot of guys who stood up. Rory Best led from the front in a very confrontational display, making big hits in the tackle and the clear-out. Devin Toner was all over the park and getting stuck into everything. The back row were very busy with Stander having a superb first half in particular. Our half backs showed their class with Sexton in particular looking to be hitting some very good form. And the Irish centres were strong, particularly defensively where I think Payne showed exactly what we were missing in the RWC QF. The back 3 had limited opportunities but both wingers were defensively excellent. Zebo mixed the good with the bad, being very threatening on the ball but a little shaky off it, particularly under the high ball. But as a winger playing full-back it's hard to hold that against him.
Given that Ireland were so depleted by injury and were facing possibly their strongest competition for the Championship (judging by the other games at the weekend) the result was a decent one, with the performance being a very positive one. The Welsh defensive effort was very good and it's probably fair to say that against other sides Ireland would almost certainly have converted another 1 or 2 chances. With guys like Ross, O'Brien and Rob Kearney to come back into the side over the next few weeks Ireland will just get stronger. And we get to see against France this weekend how much damage a back row of Stander, O'Brien and Heaslip can do. If that isn't enough to get Irish fans excited I don't know what is!