Roof falls in on Irish hopes as England loom on horizon
Eddie Jones’s side could arrive in Dublin with title and chasing Grand Slam
The players react as the final whistle blows during the Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Ugh. Today’s Calcutta Cup meeting between England and Scotland will make for tougher viewing now. For, regardless of the outcome at Twickenham, Ireland cannot take the title down to the wire when hosting England in next Saturday evening’s 2017 Six Nations finale at the Aviva Stadium.
Come the 5pm kick-off in Dublin, barring a draw on Saturday (and even then Ireland would only be clinging onto their title hopes by their fingernails) the most Joe Schmidt’s team can aspire to is second place after the 22-9 defeat to Wales at the Principality Stadium.
As a result, England can now reclaim the title by beating Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday. Even winning without a bonus point would take England to 17 points, seven clear of Ireland on 10 points.
With the title already secured, Eddie Jones’s team would thus come to Dublin in search of back-to-back Grand Slams – the first country to do so since France in 1997 and ’98 – as well as a record 19th successive win. Aside from the carrot of finishing second, all Ireland would have to play for is a win over England and so denying them a Grand Slam, as happened in the same ground in 2011.
Following a second defeat in that campaign away to Wales on the penultimate weekend, if that felt a little hollow then, it’s liable to appear even more so next Saturday.
Even if Scotland deny England the title and win, Vern Cotter’s side would move to 13 points and relegate Ireland to a distant third place. In this scenario, a win for the Scots at home to Italy in next Saturday’s opening encounter would also leave the title out of Ireland’s reach.
To all intents and purposes then, Ireland are out of the picture and that much was evident in Schmidt’s crestfallen demeanour afterwards.
All this after the costly sinbinning of Johnny Sexton toward the end of the first half and the loss of Conor Murray with an arm injury sustained before half-time and which eventually forced him off early in the second.
These, said Schmidt, were typical of the game’s “fine margins”, the Irish head coach adding: “I think the yellow card was crucial, [it led to] 10 points in 10 minutes. I feel a bit sorry for Johnny. He was trapped by three players but when that happens close to the line, that sometimes happen. When the penalty count is 10-4, that seems a bit harsh. Wales played some really good stuff and made it tough for us.”
Schmidt added: “Sometimes you try a bit too hard and I think that’s what we did. Certainly, in conceding the last try, we were trying to do a whole lot of slow ball going backwards and in the end we set ourselves up to be scored against.”
As for next week’s meeting with England, Schmidt said:
“We’ll be responsible for ending one winning streak if England do win tomorrow and I think the players will be up for a really big performance. There’s a heck of a lot to play for next week.
“We can still finish in the top half of the Six Nations, ” he added, “and that’s something that is incredibly important for us, even if unfortunately we are no longer in the hunt Championship.”
Reflecting on the game, he said: “I really admired the way the team clawed their way back and but for a couple of minor errors, who knows?
“It is incredibly frustrating when you get so close to the line and don’t get rewarded,” said Schmidt with a sigh. “Some days you just can’t buy a trick.”
“We’re bitterly disappointed,” Rory Best said afterwards. “When we take a good look back on it, we’ll feel we largely have ourselves to blame. Wales are a quality side, but at the same time we made a lot of mistakes when we had chances to get in front.
“They put us under pressure, but we’ve got to deal with that better,” he said. “We’re normally more clinical than that. To not score is very disappointing.”
“We came here expecting to win . . . no-one is more disappointed than the boys in the changing room. We know there was a lot of talk about this last game [against England], we’ll have to dust ourselves down and try to win the game to finish as high up the championship as we can.”
Ultimately, after a pulsating match, a tally of three tries to nil left little room for argument. In the face of Ireland’s fast line speed in defence, which even employed shooters, Wales played flatter to the gain line and were rewarded for this riskier strategy; notably in the line break by Scott Williams which led to the game’s first try by a reborn and rejuvenated George North after a brilliant intervention by Rhys Webb.
Webb would later set up North for his second try, before Jamie Roberts added a late third as Ireland sought to play catch-up from deep. This followed a marginal, if probably correct, call by Wayne Barnes when penalising Robbie Henshaw for illegally entering a lineout maul, so denying Rory Best a try and with it a conversion which would have put Ireland into the lead entering the last 10 minutes, and said Schmidt, transferred the endgame pressure onto Wales.
“It is incredibly frustrating when you get so close to the line and don’t get rewarded,” said Schmidt with a sigh. “But we can’t afford to wallow in our own self-pity.”
Yet in Webb and North the home side possessed the game’s two most creative and penetrative players. In truth, Ireland were made to look a little blunt by the unremittingly committed Welsh defence.
Ireland, having surprisingly allowed the roof to be closed were surprised by the equally curious decision to water the surface, which contributed to a slippery ball.
Irish carriers struggled more, yet as ever they strove to protect the ball in contact and the support runners cleared out continually. But while multiple phase attacks are this Irish team’s forte, as they’ve shown against Ireland in the past, defending them is a Welsh one.
Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton typified a Welsh effort which largely kept the Irish backrowers in check, save for some rampaging carries by CJ Stander, and helped to stymie Ireland whenever they threatened to generate momentum.
The interim Welsh head coach Rob Howley laughed off the notion that Ireland, or any team that a team coached by Schmidt could be limited in attack, but in any case he was entitled to feel vindicated after retaining faith in the same starting XV and matchday 23 which fell away so badly against Scotland.
Recalling how they made over 200 tackles against Ireland in Cardiff two years ago – a game that had uncanny echoes of this one – Howley said: “Defensively we got up off our line and made our tackles and put good players under pressure, and that’s what test rugby is all about.”
This, indeed, had been full-on Test match rugby.