Even when you account for hyperbole – because we all love the Six Nations – this year’s tournament has been enthralling thus far. Three out of six games have been tight affairs, four teams have left themselves in the mix for the championship and France are a mess once more.
Given what’s gone before, it’s fitting that the remaining contenders face off this weekend in Dublin and Edinburgh, respectively. Scotland, fuelled by as yet unsubstantiated self-confidence entertain the heretofore efficient England. This game offers a genuine opportunity to the Scottish to justify their hype while the English will be looking to quieten any suggestions that their back play has become sluggish and predictable.
While proceedings get under way in Paris tonight, the weekend truly kicks off on Lansdowne Road on Saturday afternoon. Warren Gatland, whose star has perhaps never shone so brightly, brings a gradually healing Welsh squad to Dublin looking to continue his excellent recent record against Ireland. Ireland, who have watched the bodies hit the floor this week are still seven-point favourites and that should immediately sound the alarm bells.
With the IRFU’s recent blanket ban on the dailies’ news conference, all the talk has been of the importance of the freedom of the press and the perceived pettiness of some of Ireland’s largest sporting bodies and individuals.
Unfortunately, in a situation like this it generally falls to ‘which side are you on’ as some believe it is the team’s duty to report to the media and provide sufficient access while others believe the media – whose work they ingest on a daily basis – do not deserve any access and constantly look to find baseless stories to propagate their clickbait. We’re of the view that the team should be obliged to provide comment for the media as, whether they like it or not, they generally profit from media coverage.
Interviews are largely and understandably banal now and many people have pointed that sporting organisations are attempting to control their own media in-house. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of very interesting characters are forced to provide vacuous content for their own employer’s online platform. Still, while places like Twitter and The White House would suggest that humanity has regressed irreparably, there remain enough people both interested and intelligent enough to seek their news elsewhere.
The myth that the media always enjoyed a good relationship with sporting organisations is brilliantly debunked in author Mark O’ Brien’s article which appeared in Monday’s Irish Times. The GAA, always ahead of the trend, was the first to chastise and indeed ban journalists from games when the latter had the neck to report incidences of violence in hurling and Gaelic football in the 1950s. According to The Irish Times, the great Christy Ring’s strike to the head of Tipperary’s Tom Moloughney ‘added no lustre to Ring’s reputation’ and when D. Hickey of the Irish Independent expanded on Ring’s ‘deplorable’ act, he was subsequently refused entry to the Cork Athletic Grounds to cover the county final. And to think of the abuse poor Tommy Walsh used to get for creatively devising ways to win the high ball.
Yet, while this is clearly not the first time the sports press have been blackballed, it is symptomatic, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions this week, of a growing intolerance of the sports media. Sports reporting may be less urgent and vital than that of current affairs but it is somewhat disappointing that we as consumers should have to accept the heavy-handed actions of sporting bodies.
No one wants to hear the watered down views of the IRFU or FAI and like it or not, the media plays a hugely important role in promoting sport. Nobody expects absolute candour but between the IRFU’s stonewalling and Martin O’Neill’s unusual approach to Tony O’ Donoghue, an air of militancy has crept into Irish sport.
It may not affect the end product all that much though as the general antipathy towards journalists in soccer hasn’t prevented the production of excellent journalism. Also, it’s a near certainty that you could count the memorable or insightful post-match interviews you’ve heard on one hand. Coaches offer next to nothing of interest in interviews and players are far more revealing, and less exhausted, in a one on one setting.
Further, one could argue that the incredibly closed shop of Irish rugby prohibits any of the established journalists from writing what they think when the team underperforms. Or, just generally. You can’t blame the established rugby writers for picking their words carefully but the lack of critique is sometimes grating. And this current ban can’t actually prevent individual players giving interviews, ones that will be far more interesting than anything Joe Schmidt or Simon Easterby usually deliver? Nonetheless, while the recent IRFU ban has ironically led to countless column inches, the end result will most likely be of negligible effect to the production of thoughtful, informative sports journalism.
To this weekend’s main event and the visit of an ominously improving Welsh side. Warren Gatland, long the shade-throwing, instigator has declined donning his troll cap this week. So long the pantomime villain in this piece, the 54 year-old has thrown precious few barbs in Ireland’s direction this week.
Gatland once again confirmed himself as an outstanding coach with the Lions drawn series in New Zealand last summer. For years, supporters and media alike criticised his unsophisticated approach, then encapsulated in the famous ‘Warrenball’ term. The term, though not without merit, is overly simplistic as the game changed together with the personnel at Gatland’s disposal but two Grand Slams and a Six Nations Championship in the Kiwi’s decade in charge represents an exceptional return.
Perhaps coinciding with the rise of Wayne Pivac’s thrilling Scarlets side, Wales openly stated this past summer that their playing style was going to change to a more expansive approach. In their tournament opener against Scotland – who had hyped themselves mightily all week- the Welsh provided a high-octane display, kept the ball in hand and in play for extended periods and seared through the Scottish defence seemingly at will. As impressive as that Scarlets inspired display was, the effort in defeat in Twickenham was even more laudable. Down eight Lions before kick-off and 12 points shortly thereafter, Wales kept England scoreless the rest of the way home and were unlucky not to take more from the refortified stadium.
Wales conceded a total of two penalties in that game thus negating Owen Farrell’s prolific boot so the question is just how exactly will Ireland break the visitors down on Saturday? Paris was wet and the Italian game revealed little so Ireland will have to think outside of the English box if they are to break down this exceptional Welsh wall. Both last year and in Cardiff three years ago, Ireland huffed and puffed relentlessly but with little invention and they were ultimately thwarted on the back of an outstanding defensive effort.
The most recent Welsh defensive effort in London allied to their breakdown work which improved as the game went on should provide Ireland with plentiful food for thought particularly when Ireland, no more than any other side admittedly, live and die by the speed and quality of their ruck ball.
More ominously, Ireland will have to deal without Tadhg Furlong in a major game for the first time in eighteen months and though Andrew Porter looks a fine player, he is being asked to replace the best tighthead prop in the world against a scrum that gradually gained superiority over the English a fortnight ago. While it is perhaps unfair to presume Porter will struggle in this department, tighthead props don’t generally ease themselves into the international game and Ireland will now have to seek parity, at best, in an area that has become a real asset in recent seasons.
Allied to Furlong’s absence is the more unexpected loss of Iain Henderson, the man who has grown fully into his role at the core of this Irish pack. Henderson has been brilliant all season, despite Ulster sometimes resembling Albert Square this year, and his aggression and ability to make a big play, in particular, will be sorely missed. Robbie Henshaw’s season-ending injury denies Ireland of a trio of its core players.
Two things are worth noting here, however. Wales, bedraggled by injuries all season will give less than a shit about Ireland’s current predicament, while more importantly the chastening Argentinian defeat in October 2015 always prefaced the day when Ireland would need to confirm the new found squad depth, which Joe Schmidt rightly identified as lacking.
Coaches are far more pragmatic than supporters in the wake of crucial injuries. It’s part of the job so they must be. And, in light of Ireland’s exit from the World Cup, Joe Schmidt has worked tirelessly to create genuine depth throughout his squad. The general perception is that Johnny Sexton still remains irreplaceable and Conor Murray is loitering near this classification also. Could this change after Saturday?
With the exception of Australia in November 2016, which came only a year after the World Cup, Saturday offers the greatest challenge to Ireland’s depth since 2015. Three players – Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Chris Farrell – with a combined 11 caps between them will play integral roles if Ireland are to overcome a resurgent and tireless Welsh side that has just welcomed three Lions, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams back into the fold.
Biggar will bring physicality, structure and a quality kicking game at number ten but he lacks the creativity and running threat of the man he replaces, Rhys Patchell. It would be impossible to omit Biggar but his inclusion suggests Wales may revert to a robust approach. The visitors will gladly invite Ireland into a street fight of sorts and the panache with which they despatched Scotland is unlikely to surface.
Ireland, for their part, have proven time and again that they are more than able for an aggressive affair but given the moving parts, the hope is that Bundee Aki and Farrell are allowed do more than just smash it straight up the middle. This tactic has proven pointless of late against Wales and if the penalty count is low again, Ireland won’t be able to rely on creating platforms from lineout mauls deep in Welsh territory.
Ireland’s hopes will still live and die on the quality of performance from Johnathan Sexton and Conor Murray. It seems a bit obvious to state this but given how tight this game will be, the home side will probably require their stars to guide them. Their performances should be raised by the fact that they are facing the second best half-back pairing in the tournament.
The packs match up very evenly, similarly the back lines, where the returning Liam Williams is set for an enthralling contest with the Six Nations form winger, Keith Earls. Even at the back, Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny can match each other for unfussy reliability so everything points to this game being a tight grind that will be decided by less than a score.
Roughneck affairs like this usually favour the home side, bringing the crowd into the game, and Ireland won’t for even one moment countenance being pushed around by Alun Wyn Jones’ pack. And, if this game follows the Twickenham script then the defences will be watertight, tries will be at a premium and it would be no surprise if this game is decided by a solitary moment of magic.
Dreams of a Grand Slam may still be alive come Saturday but more importantly, we’ll know for certain whether Joe Schmidt’s best-laid plans are coming to fruition.
Ireland by 3
Tips: (i) Wales + 8 and under 39.5 points @ 5/2
(ii) C.J. Stander 1st try scorer @ 14/1