People assume that Wales will improve from last week but I’m not so sure

Maybe they took their eye off the ball but bad performances are never good preparation

Wed, Feb 5, 2014, 12:24

Ever since the games ended last weekend, I’ve heard lots of people come up with a theory that I find confusing. Basically, the thinking goes that it was good for Wales not to play well against Italy because it means they have something to work on and improve on by the time they meet Ireland in the Aviva this Saturday.

And some people have said it about Ireland as well, saying that we played Scotland with one eye on the Wales game and that we’ll definitely be better this time around.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, Ireland didn’t play badly at all against Scotland. I actually thought it was a decent performance. They took a while to get going but eventually they put them away and won by 22 points. That, to me, was a better performance than Wales’s and better preparation for the second round of matches.

I don’t get why people think that Wales will be happy to have played badly last weekend. It doesn’t make sense. Of course they can improve but there’s no guarantee that they will. This idea that it’s ideal preparation is nonsense. The best way to go into any game is off the back of a good performance in the previous one. It’s only logical.

You’re always better to have the base of a good performance to work from. As a player, a good performance has you champing at the bit to go out and back it up the next time out. You might tweak here and there and tailor your game plan to the next opponents but it was always better to be going well than to be having something to prove.

Shaky performance
There are definitely times in any player’s career where a shaky performance is partly down to having one eye on a game coming further down the line. Sometimes it just happens and you can’t help it.

When Munster were going for the Heineken Cup in 2008, we were really good in the quarter-final against Gloucester and it felt like we were doing everything right to go and win the tournament.

We had a semi-final to get over against Saracens but there was a lot of expectation around that we would get over it without too much trouble. But of course it didn’t work out like that. Saracens didn’t let us play, they made it very hard for us and played out of their skin.

And even though we had spent the whole week saying how we weren’t going to take our eye off the ball, how we were going to play the game in front of us and not think about the final, there’s no doubt it seeped in there a bit. In our heads, in our preparation, there was no way we underestimated Saracens.

Everything we said to each other touched on not getting ahead of ourselves. And yet, maybe we did. Maybe that was partly to blame for Wales last Saturday.

That’s what makes New Zealand so impressive. The perform every day they go out. They have a certain standard that they don’t drop below, certain ways of performing that are acceptable to the group. And they seem to hit that height every time they go out. Those who don’t hit them disappear and someone comes in to take their place. Even on the days when they skirt close to the line, they usually find a way – just like they did against Ireland in November.

Wales didn’t do that last week. For whatever reason, they were below par. You could see that they were rusty and that they found Italy tough going. But I don’t buy the argument that it automatically means that they will turn it on against Ireland. Sport doesn’t work like that.

I actually think there’s a strong argument to be made that Wales aren’t as good as people assume. Obviously if they turn up, as they can, they’ll be hard to beat. They have huge power throughout their team but I actually think that all their power has made them a bit one-dimensional and predictable. They rely heavily on running over people and using the amount of sheer force they have. But there’s not a lot of variety there.

Excellent skill sets
They still have a lot of individual talent and they have guys with excellent skill sets but that power game will only bring you so far. Eventually, good coaches and good players will work you out. Ireland could obviously do with the likes of Seán O’Brien and Stephen Ferris in the side to counteract all that power but you have to go with what you have and in fairness I thought the back row were excellent against Scotland.

In a way, it might not be a bad idea for Ireland on Saturday to let Wales play their power game initially. Let them throw the ball around, let them think they can run the ball from their own 22. Sucker them into thinking they’re brilliant and then frustrate the hell out of them with good defence. Be patient and then go for the jugular when they get isolated in the wider channels.

The key for Ireland will be patience and discipline. They weren’t scintillating against Scotland but they didn’t need to be and I don’t think they really need to be against Wales either. They need to be efficient and accurate and if they do that, the consistency will follow.

If Joe Schmidt can bring that to Irish rugby, his time in charge will be a success. I would love to see them just keep to a certain standard and to get rid of the kind of mental baggage that has held us back over the years.

Above all, it would be great for Ireland not to have to wait for a defeat to produce a big performance. Maybe we’re just so used to Ireland following a bad game with a decent game that we expect the same out of Wales this weekend.

But that’s no way to go about top level sport. It shouldn’t be about reacting to the game you’ve just played, it should be about building on it. It should be a matter of growing from game to game and finding things to improve on.

Ireland are a good team when we keep the ball moving quickly and when we play the game in behind the opposition. When the ball is slowed down and momentum is taken away from us, we get frustrated and become predictable ourselves. We lack ideas when that happens.

That’s going to be a big challenge for this team – dealing with slow ball, dealing with an opposition that is disrupting their rhythm. Wales carried out that job perfectly at the World Cup in 2011.

There was a great chance there for Ireland to make a World Cup semi-final but Wales came out and put massive pressure on the breakdown and really hurt Ireland defensively.

Frustrated team
When we had the ball, we looked like we didn’t know what to do next with it. When Wales had the ball, their power game was immense and we weren’t able to isolate them and shut them down. We were the frustrated team, not them.

Wales will be looking to do the same sort of thing this weekend. Sean Edwards will be stressing that the Wales defence needs to get up in the Irish players’ faces and start asking questions of them.

Ireland played well last week but it’s not like they’re on a run of winning performances. The Wales players will want to bring any negative thoughts or experiences they have had to the front of their minds.

I don’t think Ireland have anything to fear on Saturday. I like the soundbites that are coming out of the camp, the players seem to be in good form and full of confidence. It’s vital that they get Paul O’Connell back into the line-up and feed off his leadership. In attack, Ireland need to be more clever and pose more problems.

Ireland definitely have the ability and hopefully the new era of Joe Schmidt means a move away from the ups and downs of the old days. Steady improvement, building performance on top of performance, needs to be the way to go. It’s definitely a better way than using a bad day to bring on a good day.

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