Alan Quinlan: Ireland can learn more from defeat to Wales
Ireland could have secured a draw and retained Six Nations. But at what cost?
Ireland’s Rob Kearney battles for possession with Wales’s Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts during the Six Nations match at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Photograph: Inpho
When plotting an escape route through the perilous streets of a delirious Cardiff city on Saturday evening, nobody wanted to hear about learning more in defeat than victory.
But think about it. Next time the intensity reaches these levels in a Test match Ireland will be back at the Millennium Stadium. That’s not until France on October 11th.
Lord knows what state Philippe Saint Andre’s gang will be in by then but it would be foolish to expect anything less than their bench-emptying, game-chasing late assault in Dublin last month.
Until then, there’s nothing to compare with Saturday’s suffocating intensity. Not Scotland this weekend nor the August warm-ups nor Italy, Romania or Canada will get near the 289 Welsh tackles made to repel our 64 per cent possession.
To beat the French, presuming they get their act together, could well require similar numbers from Ireland. So there are valuable lessons here.
Imagine we did recover from 12-0 and 20-9 to stay on course for the Grand Slam. Imagine Jamie Roberts hadn’t made that great tackle on Tommy Bowe or the last driving maul wasn’t punished by Wayne Barnes, or the forwards heard the roars of Jared Payne and shifted it wide at the end of nine and a half minutes pounding the Wales try line.
Ireland, at the very least, would have secured a draw and gone on to retain the Six Nations title. But at what cost? What would they have really learned about themselves?
Because if it’s not France, it will come in a World Cup quarter-final or semi-final; Ireland will have to chase down a lead.
To have a successful World Cup campaign, they’ll have to come up with a new way of creating tries. Because that’s the only way to haul back a sizeable lead.
I’ll never forget Munster’s 35-34 come-from-behind win over Saracens at Vicarage Road in November 1999.
Their pack devoured us in the opening minutes, we trailed 21-9 at half-time. Rog’s [ Ronan O’Gara] touchline conversion of Mike Mullins’ brilliant try completed a remarkable recovery for us to lead 23-21. But Saracens recovered to reaffirm a 34-23 lead. That forced us to play a very different game and more importantly prove that we could. Wide we went with Rog, again, converting after Mullins’ pass put Jeremy Staunton over for the late try.
It was a turning point for us as a group. Now, professionalism has taken massive strides since then but the art of chasing a game remains the same.
Ireland under Joe Schmidt haven’t had to do it until now. It’s been an upward trend since New Zealand’s agonising come-from-behind win in November 2013, which proved of enormous value in Paris the following March and against the Wallabies. But when the roles were reversed Ireland were caught on the hop.
This unfamiliar territory ultimately denied us a precious Grand Slam. Yet its World Cup value shouldn’t be sniffed at.
What should Ireland do the next time they are faced by a cast-iron defensive wall that, like Wales, believes our only major artillery is the lineout drive?
Schmidt and his coaches will look back with massive frustration but I don’t think the player mentality or endeavour will be questioned.
Wales needed the win more than Ireland having lost at home to England and this possibly being the coaching ticket’s last Six Nations match in Cardiff.
The Millennium Stadium factor – a cathedral that must be experienced to be understood – also mattered. The Welsh religion is rugby. Their will to win at home surpassed Ireland’s – which was also huge.
And still Paul O’Connell and his pack had genuine grievance with the late calls by Barnes and his officials. We still don’t clearly know what the last scrum penalty was awarded for. That’s not right.
But Wales deserved this. The difference was their desperation. That’s where the extra strength in defence came from. And their flawless start.
Another clear lesson: tactically, Wales beat us at our own game. They beat us with a pressure game best seen at the lineout, with turnovers at the breakdown, with massive defence and superior hunger.
They won all the aerial battles too. Leigh Halfpenny caught a ball, that he kicked over Conor Murray’s head while Jamie Roberts leapt over Rob Kearney soon after. The crowd understood the significance of those moments. It didn’t weaken Ireland but it sent a surge of encouragement through Welsh ranks.
Ireland tried to change up, carrying more but Wales slowed the supply of ball to our maligned halfbacks Murray and Johnny Sexton. Neither played particularly well but look back at the amount of times Murray had to rake some studs to get ruck ball. It was a constant fight for clean possession, mainly due to Welsh aggression. And breakdown refereeing.
But Wales defied the statistics because they were so desperate not to lose. So we need to evolve our attacking strategy when chasing a game. The coaches know this. This match provides a new template to work off.
Ireland did well to muscle deep into the Welsh territory 10 minutes after half-time. They came away with nothing. Again, with O’Connell to the fore, they were ruthless in setting up camp near the Welsh line a minute or so after Halfpenny failed to convert Scott Williams’ try. Five minutes of sustained pressure and they came away with nothing following Cian Healy’s knock-on. The penalty try eventually came with 11 minutes to go but 14 points had already gone a begging.
When a bit of panic set in Ireland robbed themselves of the accuracy you see when the All Blacks, and their trusted skill-set, can sense a score. Their version of having a cut is with accuracy and flawless handling, be it a prop or a centre, as it has been bred into them.
Whether Ireland ever reach that standard we don’t yet know, but it’s a benchmark worth aiming for under Schmidt. When you are doing something comfortable out on a rugby field the game seems so easy. Ireland, due to their unfamiliarity with trailing their opponent, struggled to keep their composure. Or to identify where the space was.
It almost felt like that Wellington quarter-final in 2011. Of course, they have evolved significantly since then but Ireland’s muscle memory was to go through the forwards, and primarily one-up carries, or revert to the lineout maul. Wales had prepared for this, yet it was still a huge victory for Shaun Edwards’ defensive structures.
The worry now, with the Six Nations reaching its conclusion, is Ireland’s try count. Like France, they have a 4-2 ratio. Everyone else has more, England have 11. We are not creating a huge amount of chances. But this should be seen as a blip. We lost, while playing poorly, to a converted try and were pounding the Welsh line for large patches of the second half.
The argument for change isn’t that compelling. Seán Cronin, Iain Henderson and Healy all made enormous impacts off the bench but that feels just as important as starting that trio. We just need to be a more savvy in the hunt for tries.
But at least now we know.
I remember going into that Saracens game, way back in 1999, and thinking do we really believe we can win in England or France, never mind conquer Europe? Under the posts that day Mick Galwey questioned our attitude and desire, warning us the consequences would be a 50-point pasting. Suddenly we threw off the shackles.
Ireland are a vastly different animal nowadays but do they really believe they can win a World Cup, or that they have the tools to catch one of the major nations, when forced to change up?
Be sure New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and even France believe they can. It’s a muscle memory thing for them. But it can be developed. I just hope seven months is enough time.