Williams reckons Wales pack the bigger punch
George North, seen here being tackled by Paul O'Connell, caused havoc in the Ireland defence during last year's Six Nations encounter between the two countries in Dublin
The all-Wales Lions frontrow of Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins are reunited today in Cardiff.
The granite either side of Jonathan Sexton next season will be another reason for Welsh rugby to despair. Racing Metro 92 are also reportedly signing Jamie Roberts and the brilliant Dragons blindside Dan Lydiate.
More evidence Wales’ national pastime is in bad shape. And taking flak from all angles; even Jim Telfer, the old Scottish forwards guru, gave them a tongue-lashing recently.
“Wales is not an easy country to coach because, basically, the Welsh are lazy,” said Telfer. “Coaching them, playing against and with them, I realised they had reached the top because they were the cream and had not necessarily worked all that hard to get there. Wales do produce very good rugby players.”
Therein lies the primary problem. Plenty of talent but nowhere near enough Queen’s currency to keep them home. English clubs are benefiting – see Paul James propping at Bath – but it’s the exodus to France that is the main concern.
There’s little doubt the lure of double, even triple wages is having its effect but on days like today, it’s no longer all about the money.
No man in red will lack effort having sung Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in a Millennium Stadium packed to the gills.
“I can’t remember a bigger game in recent memory,” said Martyn Williams, who amassed 100 caps at flanker from 1996 to 2012.
“And the first up is always a huge game anyway, particularly for Wales, having lost the last seven and with Paris the week after. If we lose at home to Ireland there will be a lot of pressure on the boys and the management.
“At least it’s the same for the Irish boys. If they lose there will be a lot of pressure on Declan.”
This doesn’t sound like exaggeration. It’s only the first flop and already there’s a stack of chips on the table.
The Wales camp have other fundamental problems apart from French clubs stealing their best. Warren Gatland’s yo-yo-ing, double-jobbing role as head coach during the November series damaged the credibility of his occasional stand-in Rob Howley. Before all that, Gatland overlooked his old partner in crime, Shaun Edwards, for the Lions backroom.
“He’s coached plenty of the Irish boys [Lions in 2009] as well and they will tell you he is one of the most conscientious coaches you can ever meet,” said Williams of Howley, not Gatland. “He analyses every detail. Autumn was tough for him but I think even if Warren was there they would have lost those games.
“But Rob was an easy target. It’s different now. He is in sole charge, Robyn McBride [forwards coach] is there and so is Shaun Edwards. I don’t see an issue.
“Although in saying that, lose on Saturday and the next game is a trip to Paris. Rob needs time to bed in his own way of playing.”
Problem is there is no time left. It really does feel like win or bust.
They are without three international standard locks in Alun-Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris, while Ian Evans is being patched up and rolled on to the field.
Lydiate, another injury-enforced absence, has created another debate. Justin Tipuric seemed to have played himself into the starting XV with his breakdown work for the Ospreys, except he hasn’t made it. Sam Warburton is edging back to his 2011 form and the Grand Slam captain is not going to be dropped.
The natives are calling for two opensides to counteract Ireland’s ongoing policy of selecting none at all. For years there was no issue with the number seven. Wales just gave Martyn Williams the jersey.
“If we had Bradley [Davies] in there I think they would go with two openside flankers.
“Sam has been in good form for Cardiff of late, Justin has been outstanding for Ospreys, but [Aaron] Shingler did very well against New Zealand in November.
“The main surprise for me was Ireland not going with Chris Henry. I thought he nailed down that spot during the autumn internationals but Declan obviously has some sort of game plan.
“It is going to be a fascinating battle but it is what goes on in front of them that will dictate what happens.”
Added to the Wales worries is their tradition of stuttering every season after winning a Grand Slam. Witness their efforts following the triumphs of 2005 and 2008.
“Yeah, we’ve struggled to back things up. I don’t now why. We could’ve won two of the three games in Australia last summer but that sounds like an excuse. We didn’t win.”
The concern for Ireland is the unquantifiable, the inexplicable. Something happens to a Welsh man when that red jersey is strapped around his torso. They become stronger, faster and play a brand of rugby that is uniquely Welsh.
Last year’s Grand Slam was born in Dublin. George North the midwife. Still only 20, the powerhouse galloped off his wing, stepped Gordon D’Arcy before running through Fergus McFadden and offloading for Jonathan Davies to snatch the game’s decisive try.
That was the spark.
“This is a young side and the majority of those players have only known success, since they came in for the World Cup and winning a Grand Slam,” Williams continued.
“They will have learned a lot in the last few months. In defeat. They have got no option but to win at home.”
When asked how this Wales outfit can win, Williams’ answer is steeped in practicality: the Welsh scrum is superior to Ireland’s and he doesn’t recognise Donnacha Ryan as a lineout co-ordinator to compare with Paul O’Connell.
Gethin Jenkins returns from Toulon a little underdone, having started just four matches due to injury and Andrew Sheridan, while Matthew Rees is another returning from injury to reunite the 2009 Lions frontrow.
“Adam [Jones] is back and the Ospreys have always gone well against the Leinster scrum; besides Rory Best at hooker, they are facing two Leinster props in Cian and Mike. Wales will fancy themselves in the scrum. They feel they have the advantage, just depends on how many scrums there are.”
The addition of Dan Biggar – “the form fly-half in Wales,” for his first Six Nations start is the only change to the backline that out-muscled Ireland last year.
The question is can their pack provide them with a similar platform? “I think they can. If Paul O’Connell was running your lineout I would panic but when you are missing Paul the pressure on the opposition ball will not be as sustained.
“I think Wales will have plenty of ball for our physical backline and Ireland have struggled to cope with that over the last couple of years.
“I think it will be the same as last year, nip and tuck, but I think we’ll steal it by three to five points.
“Leigh Halfpenny is a key player as he can slot over anything from 55 metres. Ireland’s discipline will be key. That could be the difference.”
Wales Grand Slam hangovers
2006 – finished 5th.
Following the brilliance of Gavin Henson’s long-range penalty to seal victory the previous year, England took immediate revenge, belting them 47-13. They beat Scotland (28-18) before suffering another walloping, losing 31-5 to Ireland before the season completely unravelled with an 18-all draw with Italy in Cardiff.
France came to the Millennium Stadium next and won 21-6. Head coach Mike Ruddock had already resigned, going two days after the Scotland game.
2009 – finished 4th
Not quite as dramatic a collapse, Wales actually pulled up inches shy of a famous Triple Crown which would have denied Ireland their first Grand Slam for 61 years. You may remember Stephen Jones’ last-gasp penalty dropping short and into Geordan Murphy’s hands.
The campaign had started well, beating Scotland, then England, before losing narrowly to France (21-16) and scrapping past Italy (20-15) in Rome.
Last Year Ireland 21 Wales 23
How the match unfolded
Arguably the best place to start is with two yellow cards that were issued in the second half. Wales lock Bradley Davies was first to go for a ridiculously dangerous tip-tackle on Ireland replacement Donnacha Ryan that warranted a straight red. Referee Wayne Barnes didn’t see the incident but acting on the advice of touch judge Dave Pearson, issued a yellow. The second yellow had an even more pivotal influence. Stephen Ferris was adjudged to have perpetrated a tip-tackle on Welsh secondrow Ian Evans; it wasn’t but Barnes thought otherwise. To compound matters, Leigh Halfpenny stepped up to kick the match-winning penalty. Wales’ victory was merited as they outscored the home side by three tries to two.
Who the coaches selected
Ireland were without the injured Brian O’Driscoll following shoulder surgery, the first time since 1999 he would fail to play a single game in the tournament. Declan Kidney plumped for Fergus McFadden to partner Gordon D’Arcy in the midfield. Today, Wales will have six of the backline that caused so many problems in Dublin last year, the only absentee Scarlets outhalf Rhys Priestland, who is injured. Ireland have a more familiar look up front today, based on last year’s line-ups, with Wales retaining just three of the pack: captain Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and tighthead prop Adam Jones.
Lessons for Wales
Their ability to boss the collisions behind the scrum was central to their try tally. Outhalf Dan Biggar may utilise the cross-kick for his wings, the 6ft 6in Alex Cuthbert and the 6ft 4in George North. Jamie Roberts will be looking for soft/inside shoulders to get his team over the gain-line, while Jonathan Davies has been a handful in the past. Captain Sam Warburton needs a big performance for a variety of reasons, not least of which is to hold off Justin Tipuric for his place in the team.
Lessons for Ireland
They’ll have to find a way to deal with Wales’ aggressive line speed in defence and also the sheer size and physicality of the Welsh backline. Ireland will want to close the space quickly. The Irish back play will need to be slicker. The forwards outplayed the Welsh eight, particularly out of touch. Donnacha Ryan stole a ball that led to Tommy Bowe’s try. They’ll target the Welsh lineout to destabilise that platform. Ireland need to make better use of possession.