Gerry Thornley: Ireland right to be wary of wounded Wales
Joe Schmidt’s men know their first Six Nations Friday night match will be a tough battle
History in the making: Ireland won their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 1948 at the Principality (formerly Millennium) Stadium in Cardiff in 2009. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The Principality Stadium has fond memories for Irish teams. Cardiff was the setting for the 2009 Grand Slam coronation, as well as Munster’s breakthrough 2006 European Cup success. Yet Ireland enter somewhat uncharted territory in the Welsh capital next weekend, with their first foray into Friday night rugby in the history of the championship.
It would add to the unfamiliarity of the occasion were the roof to be closed. Of course, Irish teams also have experienced playing in what was then the Millennium Stadium with the roof closed, notably that 2009 win by 17-15.
The tournament rules require that the away team has to give its consent for the roof to be closed. England head coach Eddie Jones, having intimated in the week leading up to their game against Wales, that they would do so, but then declined on the day of the match. It would be no surprise if Ireland did the same.
The Welsh players are more familiar with the condition that pertain when the roof is closed. Due to condensation from 74,500 people being under one roof, the ball can become quite slippery. Furthermore, when the roof is closed, the noise reverberates more loudly around the stadium, and with the vast majority of the crowd being Welsh, that duly intensifies the support for them.
As long as the rules require the away team’s consent, why give them that advantage?
The two-week gap since the third round also affords Ireland plenty time to adjust their schedule, simply by pushing their week forward by a day. Hence, they assemble on Saturday afternoon rather than on Sunday, and so on for the remainder of the week, with full training on Sunday and Monday, a rest day on Tuesday, training and the team announcement on Wednesday and then travelling over on Thursday. The only changes are a slightly longer day before the 8.05pm kick-off in Cardiff on Friday and, helpfully, an extra day to prepare for the finale against England.
As scrum coach Greg Feek said, it’s just the name of the days that change, with the additional buzz of a night-time kick-off.
“Yeah we’ve talked about it – the structure of the week – and we just change the days. Really a Wednesday or Tuesday, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just another day,” he said.
“The fact that we have this week off we can actually structure it. It’s just the name of the day that’s different and you guys might have to turn up on a day that you don’t normally but that’s it really.
“We’ve just got to get on with it. I used to love Friday night games back in New Zealand. It was something you got excited about. I don’t know what it was but there was something exciting about it.”
Nor does history give Ireland any reason to be spooked. They have won on five of their previous eight visits to the Principality Stadium in the Six Nations. True, Wales are the most familiar with Friday night games, but their record in them hardly inspires fear.
They played in the first Friday night game in the championship’s history, albeit in the Stade de France in 2009, when France’s 21-16 win ended a Welsh run of eight successive wins in the tournament and ended their hopes of their first back-to-back Grand Slams since 1909.
Since then, Wales have played five Friday night games at home, winning two (both against France in 2014 and 2016) and losing three (against France in 2010 and England in 2011 and 2015).
Of course, Wales do still have a very strong record in the Principality Stadium, winning 12 of their last 15 home games in the Six Nations. That includes two wins in their last three home games against Ireland.
Perhaps the most cautionary statistic of all is that Wales have not had a winless Six Nations campaign at home since their annus horribilis of 2003, when defeats to England (9-26) and, on the last day, to Ireland (24-25) condemned them to a whitewash and the wooden spoon. That has not happened since.
Four years later, when facing a similar fate against the then world champions England, who had won three of their previous four games, Wales averted a whitewash and instead consigned Scotland to the wooden spoon with a 27-18 win. A 21-year-old James Hook, deputising for an injured Stephen Jones, scored 22 points.
In 2011, having lost their previous home game to England, they beat Ireland 19-13. Two years later, having lost to Ireland in their opening game, Wales completed a remarkable title success when beating England 30-3.
Once again, in 2015, Wales had lost to England at home when hosting Ireland in the penultimate weekend, as now, and denied Ireland a shot at a Grand Slam with a 23-16 win, albeit compensation came by way of Ireland retaining the title in Murrayfield on “Super Saturday” a week later.
All of which rather supports the theory espoused by Ronan O’Gara in the fall-out of last Saturday’s two results in the Aviva Stadium and Murrayfield, namely that a wounded Red Dragon is a dangerous dragon, and that their defeat to Scotland was a bad result for Ireland.
“That’s going to be the big game for me,” O’Gara said, repeating his assertion before the tournament began that the treks to Scotland and Wales could be Ireland’s trickiest assignments and that the latter has now become more treacherous.
“Wales have two games at home this year. They’ve lost the first one, they’ve lost today to Scotland, it’s their number one sport, there’ll be three million people demanding a result [against Ireland]. Those boys, for the next 13 days, won’t be allowed to walk down the street without abuse. I think it’s tougher for Ireland now going to Wales. Definitely.”
Last weekend also witnessed three home wins and thus far, apart from the victories by Wales and Ireland in Rome, the only away win was England’s in Wales, courtesy of Wales’s failed exit and Elliot Daly’s brilliantly concocted 78th minute try. In other words, of the six games not involving Italy, five have seen victories by the home sides.
As Peter O’Mahony said earlier this week, away wins are like gold dust. “If you look at any team in the Six Nations, it’s where you win your trophies away from home. All the teams are that little bit more difficult at home and that goes for us as well. I don’t think we’ve lost here [at the Aviva Stadium] for a long time and likewise for a lot of teams,” he said.
“Obviously, England are going well [at Twickenham] and Wales have a massive record at home as well.
“It is what makes this tournament special: those wins away from home because you fight tooth and nail for them and they’re a great sense of achievement due to the work, the amount of process you have to put yourself through in the last 10 minutes to win international games away from home.”
The sluggish start in Murrayfield was also a reminder of what happened in Cardiff two years ago, when Leigh Halfpenny kicked Wales into a 12-0 lead inside the first 13 minutes. And a tad unnervingly, as then, Wayne Barnes will be the referee next Friday night.
“Yea, yea, we’ve certainly touched on it after the first two games. Italy was a different kettle of fish: we started well there. But certainly every Six Nations game you have to kick off well, and if you don’t, you’re putting yourself under pressure,” O’Mahony said.
“You talk about it all the time: start well, start well. It’s very important, especially against Wales at home. The crowd, the whole lot, you have to put an emphasis on starting well.”
Wales, assuredly, will also have been boosted by the presence of Warren Gatland, their head coach who is currently on leave of absence due to his Lions’ duties, at their training camp in the Vale of Glamorgan on Thursday.
Forwards coach Robin McBryde said the review into Wales’s relative capitulation at Murrayfield, when conceding 20 unanswered second-half points, had not been pleasant.
“The one thing we have to do is play as a team. I hate to say it, but perhaps Scotland played more as a team than what we did,” he said.
“It has been said time and time again: it is a team game. And unless you play like a team, you are not going to succeed. Hopefully, we will do that. We are feeling the pain together, so hopefully that will bring us a bit tighter.”
Wales have finished in the top three of every Six Nations tournament since 2011, but defeats in their final two games against Ireland and France would see them finish in the bottom two and see them slip outside the top eight-ranked teams ahead of May’s 2019 World Cup draw.
“The pressure of international rugby, win or lose, is always there. It’s a constant,” said McBryde, but perhaps more so than at any point in this tournament to date.
All the signs are that a wounded Wales will come out firing. Pride in their fabled jersey demands that they simply have to . . . and they now have plenty of reasons to do so.
Ireland in the Six Nations in Cardiff since 2000
October 13th, 2001: Wales 6 Ireland 36
In one of three autumnal re-arranged games due to the outbreak of the Foot and Mouth disease, and with Warren Gatland then the Irish head coach, Ireland recovered from a 32-10 defeat three weeks beforehand against Scotland at Murrayfield had scuppered hopes of a Grand Slam following the wins away to Italy and at home to France the previous February.
March 22nd, 2003: Wales 24 Ireland 25
Then, as now, Ireland had backed opening away wins against Scotland and Italy by beating France at home in round three. On this taut, nerve-shredding penultimate weekend, after two tries by flanker Keith Gleeson, Ireland only remained on course for a Grand Slam shoot-out with England thanks to a late drop goal by replacement out-half Ronan O’Gara, and then Hickie charging down an attempted drop goal by Stephen Jones.
March 19th, 2005: Wales 32 Ireland 20
Ireland’s defeat to France a week earlier had left them with the consolation prize of a possible Triple Crown on the final weekend but Wales secured their first Grand Slam since their halcyon era in 1978 with a convincing win. Helped by a long-range penalty and drop goal by Gavin Henson, their high-tempo, offloading game yielded tries by Gethin Jenkins, after charging down a kick by O’Gara, and Kevin Morgan. That put them 29-6 ahead before consolation tries by Marcus Horan and Geordan Murphy.
February 4th, 2007: Wales 9 Ireland 19
The two countries met on the opening Sunday and in a somewhat anti-climactic match before Ireland moved into their adopted Croke Park home, first-half tries from hooker Rory Best – who scored after just 47 seconds – and captain Brian O’Driscoll gave Ireland the platform for an error-prone win. Stephen Jones’s three penalties reduced the lead to 12-9 before a 72nd minute try in the corner by O’Gara, which he converted, finally gave Ireland some breathing space.
March 21st, 2009: Wales 15 Ireland 17
This was Irish rugby’s day of days, as O’Driscoll led Ireland to their first Grand Slam since 1948. After trailing 6-0 at the interval, O’Driscoll burrowed over from close range before Tommy Bowe latched onto O’Gara’s cross-kick. However, Stephen Jones added two more penalties and a drop goal to inch Wales in front, before O’Gara’s memorable drop goal restored Ireland’s lead. However, Wayne Barnes’s penalty count went 15-5 against Ireland, and of course, when he penalised Paddy Wallace, the game, the season and Ireland’s shot at history came down to Jones’s final penalty dropping just short.
March 12th, 2011: Wales 19 Ireland 13
Typical of an undistinguished, misfiring campaign which had seen Ireland escape with a narrow win in Rome and lose at home to France before another close shave in Murrayfield, Ireland failed to fire in the penultimate round. Their title hopes were ended in hugely controversial fashion thanks to touch judge Peter Allan and referee Jonathan Kaplan wrongly allowing a try by Mike Phillips from an illegal quick throw with a replacement ball and from an incorrect position. Redemption, of sorts, would come a week later at the Aviva Stadium when Ireland denied England a Grand Slam with a thumping 24-8 win.
February 2nd, 2013: Wales 22 Ireland 30
This was another dramatic opening day in the rivalry. O’Driscoll set up Simon Zebo for the for first try, with Zebo then memorably flipping the ball with his back heel into his own hands following a Rory Best chargedown and gather in the build-up to a try by Cian Healy. O’Driscoll himself then scored to open up a 30-3 lead early in the second half. But a stirring Welsh comeback had Ireland clinging on, and whereas Ireland would not win another game, Wales would win four on the spin to retain the title after winning the Slam the previous season.
March 14th, 2015: Wales 23 Ireland 16
After beating Italy away and France and England at home, Ireland’s hopes of the Grand Slam were dashed on the day of Paul O’Connell’s 100th cap thanks to four early penalties by Leigh Halfpenny, a Scott Williams try and a stubborn Welsh defence, as Ireland threw all but the kitchen sink at the home side. Compensation would come a week later when Ireland beat Scotland 40-10 to overhaul Wales on points difference and then see England come up just short in their win over France on a Super Saturday that more than lived up to its billing.