Wales buckle under onslaught from relentless Irish pressure
Ireland maintain focus to come out on top in collisions and breakdown
Rarely has a team coached by Joe Schmidt played quite like this and rarely has an Irish team played with such unstinting focus for 80 minutes.
Ireland adhered rigidly to the pre-ordained script designed for conditions which didn’t quite materialise and for the opposition. This is, palpably, a team who believes in their coach.
For a team and squad which had been restricted to just two sessions in the six days between their opening two matches, Ireland looked phenomenally well prepared. As expected, the lines in the sand were drawn in the collisions and in turn the breakdown.
Irish players continually sought to take the tackle on their terms, the recalled Gordon D’Arcy being a prime example as he stood up to the defender and used his footwork to seek out shoulders and inch over the gain line. It may have not seemed like much, but in a game of trench warfare, his continual if small gains were vital.
This was backed up by Peter O’Mahony, Jamie Heaslip and Chris Henry utterly eclipsing their much-vaunted opposing Lions trio. Johnny Sexton’s second three-pointer wouldn’t have been possible without one of Chris Henry’s solo and muscular cleanouts.
Paul O’Connell and O’Mahony were bordering on freakish in their physical commitment to the cause, setting the tone in the fourth minute when O’Connell came up off the line and smashed Dan Lydiate, with O’Mahony in for a trademark penalty turnover. This eventually led to Sexton’s opening three pointer when Lydiate failed to roll away after the tackle.
Gradually winning the trench warfare on the ground, meantime Ireland utterly ruled the air. Wales’ defensive system
leaves more space at the back than most and while it took Sexton a little while to sort out his kicking radar, he found his range to devastating effect with some long touchfinders into the Welsh left corner as well as his and Conor Murray’s array of aerial bombs. Murray and Sexton were masterful as well as physical, with Sexton’s goalkicking also outstanding. Effectively he landed five from five, allowing for one miss from his own half, the pick being a touchline conversion to make it 13-0 at the break.
“Ireland kicked the leather off the ball,” noted Warren Gatland as he cited the 37 times Ireland kicked the ball, while admitting the home side deserved to win and with a game plan which he and Wales had not anticipated.
As one suspected he would, Rob Kearney continued his rich vein of form with another stunning display. He had been blocked by Welsh players on his first chase, and so cleverly eluded four of them in chasing his own kick ahead before wrestling the ball from Leigh Halfpenny. It was from Sexton’s ensuing kick to the corner and Heaslip’s chase, forcing Rhys Priestland to concede the attacking throw, that Ireland drew first blood with Chris Henry’s first test try. Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney also excelled themselves against vaunted opponents.
By upping their kicking ratio so Ireland insisted plenty of this match would take place in the air and in the process this reduced collisions and breakdowns on the ground. They rarely went beyond a few phases before taking recourse to the air. And such was the effectiveness of the carrying and the clearing out that Ireland retained 75 of their 77 rucks (97.4 per cent). By contrast, they had retained 108 from 113 rucks against Scotland.
As was also anticipated, given the return of O’Connell allied to Wales losing Luke Charteris on top of Ian Evans, the Irish lineout was much the stronger. Not only did Wales lose five of their 15 throws, what ball they did win was mostly via Andrew Coombs at the front. Even there, O’Connell’s steal led to Sexton’s second penalty.
By contrast, Ireland’s lineout yielded 13 from 15 and of an altogether higher quality. As well as using quick ball to get D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll over the gain line, the maul was again an exceptionally potent weapon. Here, as O’Connell noted, they were working off a solid base and that is a strength of all the provinces. Moreover, John Plumtree’s understated influence is beginning to look significant. Such is O’Connell’s presence though, for much of the game you could throw a blanket over the pack.
Ultimately, the maul applied the thick layer of icing on the win by providing the game’s two tries. The key is the swiftness from which Ireland transfer the ball either side of the catcher, and the first try was effectively a sharp, five-man maul to the short side.
In a game where the lack of space seemed suffocating, such was the defensive line speed of both teams, Ireland also pushed up hard on the outside to good effect as Italy had done. This was where Brian O’Driscoll’s influence was perhaps most pronounced and also O’Connell’s. It’s his sheer presence as much as anything else.
If there was to be a crib about the Irish performance, it was the relative lack of creative back play and, again, the ineffectiveness of the strike moves from set pieces. As against Scotland, this led to O’Driscoll receiving man and ball in the 13th minute when hit high by Scott Williams. The crowd and no doubt many more watching held their breath and the sight of the great one rising to his feet was a huge moment in terms of the game’s psychic energy, all the more so when Williams soon departed after injuring his shoulder in the process.
Ultimately it wasn’t a bad day for Less Kiss and the Irish defence either. Restricting the back-to-back champions to one shot at goal and three points was quite an achievement, as is conceding just nine points to date.