Gerry Thornley: Dublin visit holds no fears for Wales
Back to full strength, Gatland’s underdogs will be confident they have Ireland’s measure
Uneasily lay the mantle of favouritism in Paris, and so could be the case again this coming Saturday when Wales pitch up in the Aviva Stadium.
Little about recent or past history in this fixture engenders confidence in the 1/4 and nine-point handicap odds being quoted on Ireland, with Wales 3/1 underdogs.
Traditionally, Ireland-Wales matches have been the most fiendishly unpredictable in this tournament, and playing at home has been more of a hindrance than a help. In the last 34 meetings in the Five or Six Nations, dating back to 1984, there have only been 11 home wins, with two draws and 21 away wins.
Wales derailed Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions in the penultimate round in 2015, and with the opening draw at the Aviva Stadium a year later, and scuppered any hopes of Ireland winning the title last season by again winning on the penultimate weekend in Cardiff.
There was certainly enough to be worried about in their defeat to England at Twickenham last Saturday week.
They went into that match without a litany of front-liners and Lions, namely Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and then, the day beforehand, Leigh Halfpenny to a foot infection, as well as Jake Ball and Rhys Priestland, while George North was on his way back from injury and thus a replacement.
To put this in context, this would be akin to Ireland taking on England at Twickenham without, say, Peter O’Mahony, Seán O’Brien, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls, Rob Kearney, Iain Henderson and Joey Carbery.
For sure, this can prove liberating when a remodelled team is thrown together, all the more so if it leans heavily on a Scarlets’ side which is on a high after augmenting last season’s Pro12 title success – founded, ominously, on semi-final and final wins over respectively over Leinster and Munster – by recovering from two opening defeats to earn a home quarter-final in the European Champions Cup.
Wales filleted Scotland, making 18 clean line breaks and 13 offloads in scoring four tries for a bonus point. In Twickenham, Wales conceded two tries and went 12-0 down by the end of the first quarter. The first came from Anthony Watson’s aerial chase, Owen Farrell’s sublime 45 metre kick to within inches of the line and Jonny May’s fine finish. For England’s second, they had to pummel Wales through 24 phases, and even then it required a superb offload by Joe Launchbury for May to score again.
Thereafter, England didn’t score another point. As impressive as Wales’ attacking play had been against Scotland, so was their collective defensive effort against England.
Granted, as in the Stade de France when France hosted Ireland, the wet conditions made it harder to attack and relatively easier to defend. Even so, their work-rate for each other was astonishing.
Their starting pack accounted for 130 tackles, with their frontrow making 46 (and missing three), their secondrow 32 (missing none) and back-row 52 (also missing none). Add in their replacements, and their forwards made 156 of Wales 182 tackles, which reflected the way England attacked off their scrumhalf, but these are still impressive figures.
They were mightily disciplined too, generally never committing more than two or three players to the breakdown and realigning their defensive line quickly, while picking their moments to hunt turnovers and only conceding two penalties. As ever, they kept the ball in play and afforded England only seven lineouts.
Nor was it just about their defensive resilience. As World Rugby subsequently admitted, Wales had a perfectly legitimate try ruled out by the New Zealand TMO Glenn Newman, even though Gareth Anscombe clearly touched the ball down before Watson.
Furthermore, Mike Brown should have been sin-binned for deliberately flicking the ball from Aled Davies’ grasp at a ruck following one of two fine breaks by Anscombe in broken play. This was exactly the kind of cynical play which prompted the introduction of the yellow card, all the more so as the penalty count was 10-2.
Although the ensuing penalty did see Wales trim England’s lead to 12-6, it would have been interesting had England played out the last five minutes with 14 men.
It’s also worth noting that with their advantage play, Hadleigh Parkes’ kick through only just eluded Steff Evans while, earlier in the second half, after Anscombe’s first break and a flurry of offloads, Scott Williams slid for the line a fraction early when being tackled into touch by Sam Underhill.
There was also Aaron Shingler electing to chip ahead rather than link with the supporting Gareth Davies after the flanker’s searing break – the high point in an eye-catching display by Shingler. So that was four try-scoring opportunities, as well as a missed penalty.
Wales are also likely to recall North, who scored both tries in Wales’ 22-9 win over Ireland last year and has lost only twice in eight matches against Ireland, as well as the dangerous Williams (who, like North, scored at the weekend) and Halfpenny, or at any rate two of those three. That will make them altogether better in the air than at Twickenham, and as was the case against Ireland last year.
It will be interesting to see whether they retain Rhys Patchell after his Twickenham difficulties, or start with Anscombe at ten, or at a push reinstate Biggar if he’s deemed fit. Ironically, Anscombe’s chronic groin problems were rectified and his career effectively saved by spending a week with groin specialist Enda King in the sports rehab clinic in Santry last October.
Whoever they pick, Wales arrive in Dublin on Friday in must-win mode if they are to take their title ambitions to the last two weekends when hosting Italy and France.
This will be a tough one, as all the Irish players and coaches congregated in Carton House this week appreciate only too well.