Gordon D'Arcy: Conquering rampant Wales in Cardiff would represent a massive scalp
Ireland won’t lack motivation with Schmidt and Best facing their last Six Nations game
Joe Schmidt and Rory Best: have led Ireland to unprecedented heights and would love to register a win in Wales in their final Six Nations game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ten years ago we entered this spaceship hovering over the River Taff on the last day of the Six Nations and caught the Welsh with some cold, calculated tries from Brian and Tommy straight after half-time.
At 14-6 the Grand Slam was ours but Stephen Jones kept them afloat with a penalty here another penalty there, until his late drop goal put them ahead with moments to play.
We came back down field and Ronan O’Gara clipped his own score but still we couldn’t shake Wales off. It came down to Jones’s effort almost 50 metres from the posts falling under the cross bar and into Geordie Murphy’s arms. It came down to nothing in the end.
Wales right now are no different. Their average Pro14 player transforms into a world-beater on these crazy Six Nations days in Cardiff.
Alun Wyn Jones remains from that 2009 side. He is the heart and soul of Welsh rugby in 2019. The current team want to relive the greatest days under Warren Gatland. They grew up watching another Wales team overwhelm Ireland in 2005.
Something magical occurs when the red jersey goes on in the Six Nations, especially against England or Ireland. They rise to the occasion, surge with belief.
If this Ireland team want to add to established greatness then this, this surge must be snuffed out with ruthlessness we know Ireland possess because we witnessed it in Twickenham last year.
Rugby being cyclical, teams generally have four years to succeed and Wales are only really starting out on that journey. Ireland are top of their arc. This is year four. They start again in 2020.
But Ireland are underdogs again, which is nice having been the undisputed champions until February 2nd, with the fickle pendulum potentially swinging back the other way if they win this weekend.
This group of players want that more than me or you. The sobering English defeat and crisis management which followed provides enough harsh “learnings” from this Six Nations for the road ahead. Saturday is the ideal finish.
What is it about Wales at the Millennium/Principality stadium?
How did they ruin England’s march to a Grand Slam?
Why is Warren Gatland on the cusp of delivering a third slam as their head coach?
It’s very simple really. No matter what point a Wales team find themselves in their development, they stay in the fight. It used to be Stephen Jones or Leigh Halfpenny (Gareth Anscombe at present) keeping the scoreboard ticking. It was the same playing Munster when Rog was there. You might be hammering into them but solid defence and a kicking machine keeps them alive.
Then they strike on turnover ball, and become almost impossible to shake off when the crowd gets involved.
England and Jones are probably still scratching their heads about losing in round three. The momentum swing in the second half that day was huge but it came slowly and surely. The entire championship turned on those few minutes before and after Dan Biggar entered the fray.
England couldn’t break clear so doubt crept into their minds. Biggar exploited this.
Ireland must win the aerial duels if they are to suck the life out of Wales. Drain the blood from their supporters faces with attacking precision. Score early, score regularly. Build another block on top of the French performance.
Easier said than done. Ireland under Joe Schmidt have never won in Cardiff. There was even a draw in Dublin three years ago and last year’s match could have gone either way. Wales know how to beat them. Gatland knows.
It makes a fast start absolutely essential. None of this is a revelation. I remember feeling helpless during Wales’ locomotive opening passage of play in Wellington when they denied our 2011 side a route into the World Cup semi-final.
If this comes down to an emotional performance Ireland are in serious trouble.
So it must be about coaching and clinical play.
We saw this in Dublin last Sunday. The management of certain players appears to be paying off. Sexton and Murray needed to play themselves into a rhythm while James Ryan, Cian Healy and Rory Best obviously needed a three week rest. Each looked so refreshed. Ryan must have felt like he was 16 again. Rory like he was 36 again.
The confidence Ireland lost during this Six Nations returned with these three men. That’s a serious coaching achievement.
I was worried on ITV comms, talking about the need for Ireland to build their way into the game but as I spoke Garry Ringrose kicked the ball over Ramos’s head to engineer a perfect opening 41 seconds. Jordan Larmour instantly settled with an accurate line kick which proved so vital for a 21-year-old fullback on a windy afternoon.
That was it – catch, pass, kick – and Ireland clicked.
We constantly write about the value of coaching. How Eddie Jones fixed England, how Gatland and Shaun Edwards continually figure ways of reviving Wales, how Joe [Schmidt] keeps designing new moves to rip defences asunder. What we cannot see is any evidence of this from Jacques Brunel.
How are France allowing this to happen?
Considering how much pressure Ireland’s set piece and Johnny kept heaping on them, they defended extremely well in the opening 40 minutes. That’s not the problem. When France go past six phases they look clueless. Bash it up one-man runners and no plan, unlike every other serious international team.
That is down to coaching.
Talking to Jonny Wilkinson in studio we agreed the French players are not being coached the basic principles of modern attacking rugby, which is incredible. They do not build phases – like everyone else – to eventually find a gap. They play checkers not chess.
This is how Northern Hemisphere rugby was played in the 2000s – there were starter and directional plays to create mismatches. Hit the midfield off two rucks and then swing back the other way. Nowadays a team must map out 10 phases before they seek a specific weakness. Or come up with a brilliant first phase move off set piece.
Not France. They have no mechanisms to restart momentum when it peters out in the face of an organised defence and Ireland’s improved line speed.
I read that Brunel was repeatedly asked afterwards how this can be addressed with just six months to the World Cup. He couldn’t answer the question. France under Brunel have four wins and 11 losses. Defeat number 12 in Rome might actually do them a favour, although finding a new coach in the middle of a World Cup season is extremely difficult.
It puts Irish problems into perspective. The French under Brunel are in crisis. Ireland under Schmidt lost a little confidence.
Sexton and Best were ruthless in their pursuit of tries on Sunday. They kept squeezing penalties into driving mauls. I see them adopting a different attitude against Wales. Always keep the scoreboard ticking in Cardiff.
The emotional wave is guaranteed from Wales but there is plenty of Irish motivation this week. Joe is leaving, Rory is leaving. Here comes their final Six Nations game. Next year their voices will not be heard in Carton House or during the warm-up or in the changing room at half-time.
This is the beginning of the end for the most successful coach and captain duo in Irish rugby history. I’m sure that means something to the younger players. I can say with certainly that senior players will want to deliver for them.
The succession plan is already in full motion. In the best teams new leaders are given space to grow. They are encouraged to take over because eventually, and very soon in Ireland’s case, it will be theirs to run.
Plenty of the great teams down through the history of sport grow old together. They don’t allow the next generation to find their feet. They block the transition. The worst conflict in any squad is when ageing leaders silence potential successors.
There is no power struggle in this Ireland team. The young players are expected to take over at any given time.
The pressure is all on Wales, right? They need a new level of performance whereas Ireland are striving towards their best again.
I’m not calling it. Come back to me after 15 minutes.
We, the outsiders looking on, got a little carried away and for good reason because 2018 was such a magical year to follow Irish rugby. We reached for the stars. The players remind us they are “only human beings” – as Joe and Rob Kearney rightly stressed in recent weeks – and so prone to lapses in form.
This game, this moment in time, has nothing to do with the World Cup
Recovering is the hard part. It becomes about playing for your friend.
That’s what it always came down to in my career on these days, when medals were on the line – or denying others a trophy! – that’s what gets you bouncing up off the ground.
A late Six Nations revival would bring enormous confidence for everyone involved before they rejoin the provinces. Schmidt has guided Ireland back on track after Eddie Jones’s England smothered them while France stutter along with one hand tied behind their back by Brunel’s coaching and almost unseen comes Gatland’s new Wales, looking exactly like any other team Alun Wyn Jones has played on.
This game, this moment in time, has nothing to do with the World Cup. It’s tribal. It’s the latest chapter in an old rivalry. Keep the scoreboard ticking. Wales against Ireland in Cardiff with everything on the line. The last stands of Warren and Joe.
Where would you rather be?