Wales show Ireland what’s expected at World Cup
Joe Schmidt’s men know they’ll have to improve as they fail to penetrate red wall
Ireland fullback Rob Kearney rises high to claim the ball ahead of Wales outhalf Dan Biggar at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Accordingly, many who were being drenched without shelter in the lower seats made for the sanctuary of covered seating or, more likely and more understandably, a local hostelry, thus bidding a premature farewell to the great man and his fellow World Cup travellers.
Still, enough hung around to say adieu or au revoir (he could be returning to this venue with Toulon in December after all), but even so it was something of a damp squib, not least for the man himself, purely by dint of the result. Embarrassed more easily than most by such personal acclaim, this applied even more so, he conceded, after losing.
As expected the real Wales turned up, and no less than Ireland, they’ll be a threat at the World Cup if their frontliners stay fit and Leigh Halfpenny is given chances to trouble the scoreboard.
In what may be a foretaste of what Ireland will encounter and the World Cup will throw up, it ebbed, if rarely flowed.
So much of the game centred around the midfield battle of the gain line, as Wales engaged Ireland in a game of Warrenball. Ireland would not have been surprised by the Welsh line speed in defence, and the impenetrable red wall in front of them that has caused them problems in the past, from Wellington four years ago to Cardiff last season, continued to do so here.
More often than not, Wales seemed to win the collisions, and if they held up the carrier, they either executed a turnover or slowed the ball down to a snail’s pace.
Only Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson provided any kind of penetration in the crowded traffic, with the centre able to come from depth off set-piece ball and the talented lock doing likewise, as well as pumping his legs in a starring role which must have enhanced his claims of a starting place.
It was Henderson who muscled over for Ireland’s try in first-half overtime – well, may just about may have brushed the line – and Seán Cronin, who added ball-carrying ballast off the bench, almost repeated the feat in second-half overtime, but the ball was superbly held up by Aaron Jarvis.
The Irish coaches must have been slightly unnerved by the manner Justin Tipuric outshone them at the breakdown. Aside from blocking Jordi Murphy and other Irish defenders in front of the gain line, he was generally a pest, scoring the Welsh try and denying one with a steal off a close-in Irish drive.
In the main, Ireland usually ran out of players for the clear-out, or so over-committed numbers that they had to attack narrowly.
By contrast, Wales’ clearing out was sharper, lower and more effective.
The net result was that for all their huffing and puffing, and 57 per cent possession, Ireland made zero line breaks, and just two offloads; albeit Wales only made two line breaks and 10 offloads.
The highlight was one midfield exchange between Scott Williams, the impressive Jamie Roberts, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny. This came around the end of the first quarter, at a time when Wales were beginning to turn the screw.
Ireland had started brightly, as Johnny Sexton worked his trademark loop to create space out wide and nearly locate Keith Earls with a cross kick (as well as another chip subsequently in behind the defensively naïve Alex Cuthbert).
But Ireland were rusty too, making three unforced errors in that bright first five minutes and then becoming slightly undone by the Welsh line speed and effectiveness in contact, as Sexton had one kick blocked and Rob Kearney sliced further kicks over the touchline.
As in Cardiff last March, when the first six penalties went against them, here the first five were awarded to Wales, and after Halfpenny had kicked Wales ahead (as usual, the metronomic fullback didn’t miss), thrice Wales went to the corner and thrice Ken Owens threw to Bradley Davies or at the front in a case of third time lucky.
Not once did Ireland contest, a tactic that was changed after half-time. Buoyed by Henderson’s score after two tapped penalties over time, with one or two inside passes for variation, and some hard running and punishing commitment to the breakdown, Ireland dominated the third quarter and themselves went to the corner.
Cue Tipuric’s pivotal intervention, a pivotal scrum penalty against Ireland for wheeling which infuriated Joe Schmidt and another pivotal penalty against Paul O’Connell for a neck-high clear-out at the behest of Dave Pearce which looked ridiculously harsh, even allowing for the new World Rugby diktat.
That one further infuriated Schmidt, but thereafter Wales bossed matters sufficiently for Halfpenny to steer them home until another end-of-half rally.
That re-affirmed how much this Irish team is prepared to dig deep for each other. Also on the plus side, the defensive effort, communication and application was the best of the three warm-up games to date. Individually, some looked in good shape, notably Henderson, Henshaw and the Kearneys, who performed with their usual high quality in the air, and with Wales hoofing the ball 41 times out of hand to Ireland’s 33, there were plenty of aerial exchanges.
Jack McGrath had a fine game, and Nathan White provided sufficient evidence he could be chosen if there are enough concerns about Marty Moore’s well-being.
But Ireland will encounter a more equally physical and no-frills English side who will be playing at home next Saturday, not to mention more of the same in the World Cup, not least from France.
On the premise that a team learns more from its defeats than its wins, maybe it’s not the worst defeat in the world. Ireland will play better than this six weeks’ hence against the French.