Ireland’s use of possession became puzzling
LET’S TEMPORARILY suspend reality and assume that yesterday was a draw and not a fortunate two-point win for Wales. Who would then have more confidence in Paris, Ireland or Wales? With your answer in mind let’s now look at yesterday.
From the kick-off it was clear Ireland had learned from last October where subtle changes proved very dangerous. The Irish backrow in October were very hungry for contact around the fringes and were cut down. Yesterday Stephen Ferris, Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip immediately popped up all over the place asking major questions of the Welsh. Heaslip had a very active day on the ball creating many opportunities for his team.
But then no plan survives the first shot as the opposition have their little nuances. Wales appeared a team dancing to a certain beat. Their lineout, for instance, was but a starter to a multi-phase approach where if a breakthrough came off, great, such as Bradley Davies’ early run down the touchline but it appeared their objective was to expose space by the third or fourth phase in which to send giants such as Jonathan Davies or George North into space or an unbalanced defender.
Jamie Roberts had a big opening and the use of him illustrates my point. The seventh minute brought the TMO into play on a potential Welsh try. The outcome was important but Robert’s role in the build up was essential. He carried into contact twice and immediately sucked in three Irish defenders Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Fergus McFadden. He was stopped and I got a sense a score from him was a bonus where the Welsh were actually anticipating his force-multiplier role and were primed to expose the outside channels.
Rhys Priestland was more ambitious in his building of phases where he was ever vigilant of the imbalance in our defence. Aware of the damage his big men were doing to our numbers I could see him scanning where the space was and in the 13th minute he switched onto the blindside where Mike Ross and Tommy Bowe lay in nervous wait. Priestland mustered five Welsh men to our two and simple hands provided their first try. Three minutes later he did it again, this time with Heaslip isolated in a massive openside where Priestland sprinted from behind the ruck to attack the space.
In possession Ireland had set up with the backrow at various channels which was a massive improvement but soon reverted to type in the one-up carry. Heaslip was sensational in traffic gaining great advantage. The question remains; what if he gets stopped in contact? What then? Ireland’s use of possession in the opening quarter was inventive but soon became puzzling. Strangely all bar one of Wales’s kick-offs went to one place, O’Brien, who had rotated with Stephen Ferris into the natural blindside wing forward slot and ran back at Wales. Each time Conor Murray box-kicked with good length and height affording the blindside winger a real chance. That made sense.
Wales, the away team, dominated the possession stakes considerably and did so quite comfortably. Why we elected, as the home team to kick so much, and in many cases aimlessly, affording Wales the opportunity to continue on the ball, is the puzzle. Our provinces don’t do it but when they do it is very tactical. Ireland too had opportunities but couldn’t get outside the Welsh defence consistently enough to get our back three into threatening positions, who out-carried their Welsh opposition by 51 metres. D’Arcy and McFadden found the swinging Welsh defensive gate cutting them off on the outside. I’m surprised we didn’t get to see the famed Leinster loop from Sexton to get outside the Welsh. Pity as there was space to be exposed.
What of Sexton and McFadden’s performance? Sexton didn’t look like the man he has become in blue but it’s difficult to judge him before he gets a run of games in the role of the main man he has become at Leinster. He did however defend excellently albeit being bumped by North but I did notice D’Arcy appears very confident in Sexton’s defence, hence not rushing in to aid him and so keeping free for other threats. This begs the question why bring him off when defence was crucial in the closing minutes?
McFadden was clearly much less influential than his opposite man Jonathan Davies. He did carry and especially in tough traffic eked yards that weren’t necessarily there.
The laws of physiques must be accounted for when assessing these infamous tip tackles where Ferris appeared to make a genuine attempt at waist height to tackle; Davies didn’t. As for those who were planted by North I do feel for them. Wales utilised his assets extremely well where he came in off the blindside targeting an unbalanced midfield more concerned for the traffic immediately in front. McFadden suffered from North popping up as did others and had to change his body completely to attempt the very tough tackle.
North carried for 36 metres (three more than Bowe and 10 short of Andrew Trimble) but Wales made the most of those metres and Ireland strangely failed to blitz the Welsh.
Points to be pleased with; is there any finer sight than your fullback (Kearney) sailing through the sky on the way to catching that speculative kick or, better still, as your last line of defence in the air catching and powering forward lifting the siege and pumping real energy into the 14 men in front of him.
The Irish lineout remains excellent where crucial steels were made none more so than Donnacha Ryan, who made a real impact on his arrival. O’Connell’s telepathic reading of the Welsh lineout is extraordinary; I don’t know how he does it. On 23 minutes for no reason at all he switched with Heaslip and stole the Welsh lineout ball. Rory Best’s 36-minute try was superb with D’Arcy’s very soft hands sucking in Wales for Bowe and Best to flourish in the third channel, not to mention Ireland’s brilliant use of the sin bin.