Ireland v Wales: Expect lots of hits and very few misses

Ireland’s reliance on multi-phase approach – and on Sexton and Murray – is a weakness

Jonathan Davies: "I think it's just ferocious, Paulie. You can hear the hits."

Paul O’Connell: “Absolutely, you can hear ’em, ya.”

Davies: “The gasps from the crowd!”

BBC commentary – Wales v Ireland, March 2017

No Wayne Barnes today. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has repeatedly returned to the highly regarded English referee's decisions when questioned about the Welsh iceberg sinking Ireland's ocean liner in 2015 and last season.

See the look of bewilderment on the faces of O’Connell and Seán O’Brien when Barnes awarded Wales a scrum as the clock turned red two years ago. See their pure disgust as the back-pedalling Welsh got the penalty that sent them dancing into the land of their fathers.

See Luke Charteris's Six Nations record of 31 tackles, only equalled by Guilhem Guirado in Paris on February 3rd.

A clear pattern is emerging from Ireland games.

Ireland v Wales ended 16-16 in 2016 after Johnny Sexton, in agony, levelled matters with a tough penalty and superb line kick before Ian Madigan replaced him on 75 minutes.

A recurring Irish problem in 2017; without Sexton – off the field for 21 of the 80 minutes for a HIA and sin-binning – and Conor Murray – removed on 47 minutes – Ireland became rudderless.

"Ireland's style of play in attack is multi-phase," said former Leinster outhalf Andy Dunne this week. "Multi-phase without a conductor in the middle and it can break down really quickly, with the wrong guys in there at nine and 10.

“There is huge pressure on both Conor and Johnny to remain fit and completely in charge. It’s problematic. Warren Gatland dilutes responsibility across his team and senior players. We tend not to do that. Our nine and 10 run the show. As generals they are outstanding but without them our attack game goes from what is currently not the best attack game in the world to really mediocre.”

Off these slumped shoulders have Irish Grand Slam and Championship hopes fallen.

“I think we can win the game with the two guys healthy on the field,” Dunne added. “I’m very worried otherwise.”

In Paris 41 phases didn’t deliver victory – it took 41 phases to give Sexton a 45-metre drop goal to win the game.

Bluntness

Schmidt blamed the weather for no tries and zero line breaks, and continues to reject a growing belief about Irish bluntness in attack, seemingly first voiced by Warren Gatland, that Dunne and others continue to highlight.

"That's frustrating because one opposition coach has tried to create that story and people have picked it up without doing their own analysis," said Schmidt. "I am not sure why he would get more credence than [Pumas coach] Daniel Hourcade who was really impressed, or by [former Springboks coach] Allister Coetzee who was really impressed."

Ireland put seven tries on Argentina and South Africa in November. Similar praise from Eddie Jones, Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika is yet to arrive.

Gordon D’Arcy has written about the rise of Bundee Aki as an alternative playmaker but the former Ireland centre also noted: “Recent history promises an extraordinarily brutal, even by modern standards, Ireland versus Wales encounter, with the ball in play for a ridiculous amount of time.”

For brutal and ridiculous see last season’s 22-9 defeat at the Principality stadium.

The “ferocious” passage of play Jonathan Davies referred to ran, non-stop, from 8:51 to 11:42.

8:51: Off a stalled driving maul, Rhys Webb goes wide. Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies (the younger version) throw long passes to Leigh Halfpenny who puts George North thundering over halfway. North bashes past Rob Kearney but steps into Garry Ringrose who makes a grounding tackle 11 metres inside Irish territory.

9:20: Seán O’Brien nails Biggar on Ireland’s 10-metre line. There is a collective gasp.

9:50: Tipuric crashes up the middle into Donnacha Ryan and Robbie Henshaw, whose head whiplashes backward in a vicious collision. The stadium groans.

9:59: Webb and Wales know what to do. They attack right to left, with Liam Williams gathering Biggar's grubber – on the opposite wing – before a full-frontal collision with Kearney, who attempts to rip the ball, but Williams breaks free and spins into Rory Best before rolling into the Irish 22.

10:07: Webb goes back right but this time Henshaw empties Rob Evans, the loosehead prop, six metes behind the gain line. Spectators make a collective "Ohhhhh".

10:23: Wales keep moving to the right wing where North half-steps Zebo just as Kearney – who refuses to wilt – halts the giant winger. Alun Wyn Jones runs over CJ Stander but Dev Toner stops the Welsh captain. Jamie Heaslip and Ringrose, 10 metres from the Irish try line, meet Jake Ball in shuddering contact.

Unsinkable

The beauty – the horror! – with this fixture is both teams are convinced they are better than each other. Defences are the iceberg and in possession everyone believes the Titanic is unsinkable.

11:38: Webb, still in control of proceedings, having directed play back to the left wing, attacking right again, where Biggar fires a pass to the Davies torpedo, on an outside-to-in trajectory towards the Irish posts, but Ringrose is waiting to deliver a hit that dislodges the ball. Scott Williams gathers in an offside position.

Irish players celebrate.

“Ferocious, Paulie . . .”

Still another 71 minutes to go. The ball was in play for 46 minutes and 13 seconds. That’s a record for the Schmidt era. The average ball in play for Irish games in 2017 was 37 minutes. Against England it only clocked at 33:52. That’s 13 more minutes from one high-voltage test match to another. Playing Wales, there were 257 rucks and 341 tackles made by both sides, but against England that drops to 177 rucks and 279 tackles.

The template to beat Ireland begins with a bare minimum 240 tackles. This month France broke the Welsh world record of 250 with three extra. Italy are next with 245 in 2014 (still lost) and Scotland won at Murrayfield last year with 242. The common denominator? Hard running men in green shirts.

We can replay history forever but the Titanic will never hit the iceberg and stay afloat.

“Do I have confidence that if we force them to make 250 tackles that we can get a result?” Schmidt asked at the end of a long response, to that very question, after pounding his mantra about the importance of “small margins” while firing rubber bullets at the officiating.

“You have got to be confident if you force them to work that hard that you can get the result.”

Ireland’s attack, D’Arcy tells us, is evolving through Bundee Aki and the expanded use of Conor Murray. What is established, by Wales since the 2011 World Cup quarter-final, is firm knowledge that tackling Ireland to a standstill – and flinging big men like George North at them with a wide to wide offence – can secure a two-score victory.

“Do we play slightly differently from two years ago?” Schmidt asked at the end of a long response, to that very question, after pounding his mantra about the importance of “small margins” while, again, firing rubber bullets at the officiating.

“I think anyone who does analysis would say, ‘Yes we do.’ There are some changes in what we do. I am obviously not going to explain them.”

Dunne agrees but notes: “It’s improved a small amount but it’s still reliant on the multi-phase approach which is very exhausting for players and not economic or effective in general.”

Hear the hits and gasp.