Before last Saturday we saw Ireland as very real contenders for the upcoming World Cup. One defeat later, our long term outlook remains the same but as Joe Schmidt might say if he ran for any number of uninspiring political parties, ‘A lot done, more to do.’
We weren’t alone in predicting an Irish victory in Cardiff. While obviously expecting a massively physical, committed Welsh team, we did not expect our hosts to provide a record breaking defensive performance. Even after owning the ball for the first fifteen minutes, Wales went on to put in 250 tackles, their line only being breached as a result of a penalty try. A further oddity was that the Welsh always looked far more threatening with ball in hand. Their try came from quick ball and what appeared to be a defensive misread between Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe.
We wondered before Saturday how Ireland would respond to going two scores behind. Well after twenty minutes the visitors found themselves 12-0 in arrears with the Welsh tails up and the Millennium Stadium absolutely buzzing. The inevitable response came from Ireland though this was more through sustained periods of possession rather than any real sense of threat. Paul O’ Connell, absolutely immense on his 100th cap, made Ireland’s two best line breaks. Without any intended slight to the great man, that is hardly a ringing endorsement of the still latent creativity in the Irish backline. We hadn’t been behind for what seemed like aeons but the combination of home pressure and away indiscipline meant Leigh Halfpenny was more than willing to lay it on thick before the first quarter had even elapsed.
Finally having gotten a foothold in the game, Ireland decided to lay a marker, with Jonathan Davies in the sin bin, by eschewing a kick at goal and setting up an attacking line out in the red zone. Rory Best and the Irish lineout, not for the last time, completely fluffed their lines, with Wales subsequently winning an incredibly welcome relieving penalty. As the fabulous stadium shook, one couldn’t help but think of Devin Toner’s crucial steal for Ireland at a similar time in the game against the English. Games are not won or lost on these individual moments but some of these moments have an undeniably greater impact on the game’s outcome than others. Or, to paraphrase Animal Farm’s Napoleon, ‘All moments are equal but some moments are more equal than others’. On a day like Saturday when, late on in particular, the Welsh must have felt like they were being hit by boulders, these crucial momentum swings must really have boosted their confidence and allowed them go to the well one more time.
Before we advance too much further we would like to highlight the fact that our pre- match thoughts on this game were perhaps a little wide of the mark. Vastly superior lineout? Hmmm…. Astute kicking game? Not exactly. Considerably stronger than the Welsh halfbacks? Definitely not on the day. We can’t remember a game in the last four years when Conor Murray and particularly Johnny Sexton misfired this badly. Sexton happened upon a bad day, an inevitability unfortunately, for anyone who chooses to step outside their front door every morning. Perhaps a combination of not being fully fit and relentless Welsh pressure contributed to a really off day for the Dubliner. We feel that given the team’s plight at the time it would have made sense to pull Sexton ashore after 55 or 60 minutes and give Ian Madigan a chance to inject some life into the game. As with his predecessor, Ronan O’ Gara, Sexton is only taken off if injured or the game is comfortably in the bag. This is the gift and curse of having an outstanding out half. You want him out there as often as possible but what happens if things go awry? Ian Madigan is a game breaker, perhaps not a game manager, but at eleven behind with ten to go you have got to roll the dice. Sure you might hit snake eyes but what if hard eight comes up?
In basketball they talk about role players and scorers off the bench. The latter in particular comes in when their side needs a rapid burst of offense. We seem to have this option in Madigan from the bench and anyone who has watched him for Leinster will testify that he is lethal at stepping and fending -off energy sapped defenders. Sam Warburton, the heroic Welsh captain said the thirty two phase, ‘last stand of Cardiff’ was about as tired as he’s ever been. Surely Madigan would have thrived here, given some time, to go around exhausted defenders rather than straight through them. We’re in danger of going to the big show in the Autumn with only one, admittedly exceptional, tried and trusted out half.
Further, Ireland were guilty of, and there’s no other word for it, butchering a walk-in try on the right wing with Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe waving madly to those inside to let the ball come wide. Certainly the stadium was a cauldron of noise but the eyes are there for catching what the ears don’t see. Cian Healy, manically involved, may have gotten in the way but the best teams, which Ireland clearly aspire to be, rarely misfire in these situations. New Zealand, the absolute standard bearer, virtually never do.
Incidentally, Wales have out- thought Ireland on two separate occasions four years apart, under two different coaches in two different tournaments. Declan Kidney was widely criticised for failing to anticipate Wales frantic chop tackle assault in the 2011 World Cup. Four years later and after a brilliant, Irish ten game unbeaten run, a phenomenal Welsh rearguard action and back row masterclass have given Joe Schmidt and his staff plenty of food for thought. Still for all our misfiring, a Helms Deep standard defence and an at times comical refereeing performance Ireland fell by a converted try to an already quality side, particularly geed up for this game by Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards.
Ireland go to Scotland needing points, tries and a bit of reckless abandon. Schmidt has almost always stayed ahead of the curve in his tenure as Ireland coach. Last week he got out coached and his team got outplayed. Assuredly he will have the Scots well sussed out but there is no point in Ireland going to what will be a raucous Murrayfield and sneaking home on a slew of penalty kicks. There is talent abound in this Ireland side. It’s time to light the blue touch paper.