Liam Toland: Sexton must be kept out of firing line
Ireland’s chances hinge on Jamie Roberts running into a forward rather than outhalf
The toughest 20 days of Joe Schmidt’s journey begins on Sunday; Wales at home, France in Paris six days hence with England away by day 20. All to be done with a new captain, several key injuries and a Welsh team that deserves huge respect from all in Irish rugby. This is very tough and more so with many hungry for change or at least innovation. Let’s be fair.
Why Warren Gatland announces his team so early is no doubt an integral part of his pre-match ruffling of feathers. But it does afford time to examine the opposition in more detail. Mervyn Murphy, Ireland’s superb technical analyst, will no doubt utilise these extra days. What might we expect from Wales?
The obvious discussion point with Wales choosing two opensides – Sam Warburton in the six jersey and the outrageous broken-field runner Justin Tipuric at seven – is the breakdown. But first, let’s talk about Tipuric. With one eye on Argentina and their attacking exposure in our wider channels, a player with Tipuric’s football and speed can damage off his powerful midfield.
Think of an Andrew Trimble coming in off his blindside wing into the Welsh midfield, crossing the gainline and then, crucially, getting his hands free. Any openside worth his weight will happily play the waiting game. A player such as Tipuric will trail his midfield and gloriously pop up for the offload, utilising two special gifts; speed and football ability. He can read space and attack it like few forwards in the game, save All Blacks. He can also spin passes off both hands to impact wider players. In essence, he can convert two-on-one scenarios at full speed, with George North the beneficiary.
At lineout time, Devon Toner’s partner and backrow will have a huge role to play out of touch. Wales, with Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones augmented by Warburton and especially Tipuric, can triple pod defensively, however. Being light with plenty of fast twitch fibres, Tipuric can easily get to his full aerial height with one lifter.
Toner can elect six-man lineouts that’ll reduce Welsh pod flexibility and aid Rory Best. Ireland’s use of the lineout maul will dictate tempo and tactics when necessary but be aware of Charteris and his extremely long arms. He can be in the middle of the lineout maul and access the Irish tail gunner. Watch for it.
Now to the breakdown. The departed Paul O’Connell’s statistics off Irish rucks was remarkable as he was consistently in the top three Irish arrivals. As a tighthead secondrow scrummager, this was extraordinary. However, it also indicated our point of contact was very narrow. In the early absence of Dan Lydiate, the chop tackle will not figure as largely, which makes Irish offloads possible.
Should Ireland hit the deck, Tipuric is not as effective but Warburton certainly is. The number six jersey gives him a greater roaming brief. This makes him such a dangerous breakdown player. In fact, at six Warburton could do untold damage to our ambitions. Early engagement on his running lines is crucial to knock him off line.
The Welsh front five are especially strong, but their 8, 9, 10, 12, 13 and 14 combination are even more so, which makes Sunday even more challenging. But they do have a fullback and ‘new’ winger who can be exposed and a sub tighthead, Tomas Francis, who could prove a target for the Irish scrum.
North is an interesting character; he is full of talent but he does drift away from ball-carrying. If this guy gets on the ball every few minutes, then we’re in trouble. At fullback Gareth Anscombe, an outhalf by trade, will add an extra pair of hands at first receiver to ensure North does. This’ll make speed of breakdown crucial, in that a quick ball with two ‘outhalves’ and a midfield of their quality could decimate our defence.
Defence is oft times an individual exercise, but in reality, as both Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll proved, it is a unit skill. But for me broken-field defence off multi-phase starts at the previous tackle and breakdown activity – the five-second rule, where the role of the Irish front five is so important. If they remain alive and fill the field, then Jamie Roberts will more often be met by a big unit rather than Johnny Sexton.
The Aviva is 70 metres wide and our forwards need to fill huge swathes of it to ensure our backs are making tackles way out and Sexton’s are down to an absolute minimum. To achieve this, the pack will have a massive decision around the tackle area. Should the Welsh player hit the deck without offloading, Ireland have split- seconds to engage or not over the ball. The trade-off is a force multiplier; sucking in extra defenders? Over-engagement becomes very dangerous with two quality first receivers (Anscombe and Dan Biggar) pulling the strings into greater space.
Without knowing Schmidt’s starting team, I’m unable to entirely engage in what might happen on Sunday but am conscious that a monumental change of gameplan would be entirely ridiculous. Considering the battering that’s awaiting us, it is crucial that our point of contact is varied throughout the 80 minutes with our wingers especially active. Our kicking game has been a cherished but much-maligned advantage.
However, I expect Sexton to dictate through the boot, whilst hopefully exposing the ‘new’ Welsh back three.