Matt Williams: An empty stadium will affect the Welsh and aid the Irish
The absence of vocal locals at pandemic games has made away teams the big winners
Guinness Six Nations Championship at Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales on February 1st, 2020. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Back in misty memory, in the time before face masks, nasal swabs and personal bottles of hand sanitiser, there was nothing on this planet like the energy and emotion the Welsh created when they played at the Principality Stadium. It made their Cardiff home ground into a rugby temple and a Welsh fortress.
As the Welsh sang Bread of Heaven or pumped out Delilah, all in glorious harmony, at decibels far above the levels created by fighter jets on takeoff, the hair on the back of your neck would stand tall.
When the Welsh team lined up, with their 60,000 brother and sisters and belted out their national anthem, Land of My Fathers, in full voice, that wonderful rugby cathedral became an inspirational place to all who wore scarlet.
If Wales suffer an opening home defeat, coach Pivac will hear the drums beating in the Valleys
Tomorrow, for the first time in over 130 years, those Welsh hymns will not be chanted and, What’s new Pussycat, there will be no Tom Jones. How very sad.
On the very positive side, the games are going to be played. Great kudos must go to the administrators who have navigated the treacherous path to obtain government permission to play the matches. Equally the players, who are making real sacrifices to endure living in a Covid-free bubble, deserve our admiration and thanks.
As Jack Gibson, the legendary Australian rugby league coach said, “Ya played strong. Ya done fine.” Not the best grammar, but you get the picture. Wonderfully, the games will be played and we all get to watch.
This new reality means an empty stadium will affect the Welsh and aid the Irish. That is not a criticism of the Welsh, it is simply human nature. Covid has made away teams the big winners in empty stadiums. The vocal locals are banned.
The Six Nations is no place for the faint hearted. Sunday’s game is a must win for both coaches. In non-Covid times evidence suggests that Ireland have Wales covered at every position and should comfortably win. However, these are not normal times. The Pumas and the Wallabies both triumphed over a New Zealand team that, before both matches, appeared vastly superior.
International rugby is played by people who, like us all, are affected by these strange days.
I have empathy for Welsh coach Wayne Pivac, who has taken charge of Wales at a very low point in their playing cycle. But it must be said, the drop in the Welsh performances from making the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup to the turgid displays of 2020 has been rapid and dramatic.
If Wales suffer an opening home defeat, coach Pivac will hear the drums beating in the Valleys.
The Irish performance at Twickenham last November was nothing short of a train wreck. It proved that England, New Zealand, South Africa and France are playing at a standard far above the Irish. Wales are along way behind the world’s leading teams so for Ireland to simply maintain their status quo victory is essential.
Paul O’Connell’s inclusion in the coaching team is an excellent appointment. There are no downsides for Ireland. Importantly for Paul as a coach, he has the experience of a season as forwards coach at Stade Francais. The shock of realising that Parisians don’t practice with the same intensity, nor are they as interested in learning the technical intricacies of their craft, compared to the highly professional Irish environment that Paul came from must have been a shock for such a great professional.
Dealing with the frustration of defeat at Stade is an import experience for the development of a young quality coach. He will be a much better coach for enduring the adversities of the Parisian environment. His encyclopaedic knowledge on lineout play and the breakdown is needed in the Irish team.
Since the untimely dropping of Devin Toner the on-field organisation and performance of the Irish lineout has deteriorated. Innovation, flexibility and reading the opposition’s defensive lineout is something the Irish have been lacking in the last 18 months.
While Paul can coach these skills, he is not taking the field. It remains the responsibility of the players, especially James Ryan, to improve their management of the Irish lineout. Matching the street smarts of Alun Wynn Jones at the lineout this week is an essential element if Ireland are to prevail.
All the talk about the return of the Irish great has been a welcome distraction for Andy Farrell. Make no mistake, this championship is make or break time for the head coach.
There are three must wins days and two D-days for Andy Farrell in this championship. Ireland must defeat the Celts and Italy. At a bare minimum that will land Ireland in third place. So success on Sunday is an achievable must.
Both D-days are at the Aviva. France next week, then England in the last round. Ireland might not win either game but they must show powerful performances in both.
If Ireland produce a performance in any match of the championship as bereft of rugby intellect as the one we endured against England last November, then that will trigger huge pressure for regime change.
The pandemic has stopped the singing in Cardiff, but not even Covid-19 can stop the tension, excitement and demands on teams and coaches to perform in the Six Nations.
Long may it continue.