Shane Williams fears Ireland tactics will frustrate under-pressure Wales

Former Wales winger reflects on his week with Donegal’s Michael Murphy

 

These are worrying times for Welsh rugby, and if Shane Williams was still out on the wing, looking to add to his record 58 tries, the last team he’d want to be playing next is Ireland. The fact that game is in Cardiff probably adds even more pressure. 

Six years into his retirement, Williams remains an astute observer of the game, the positive signs Wales showed against England in their second game largely disintegrating against Scotland last Saturday, especially in the second half – there is no denying the form team coming to the Principality Stadium on Friday week. 

“If you’d spoken to me after the England game, I would have had a smile on my face,” says Williams, speaking in Dublin ahead of this evening’s fleeting TV appearance as an amateur Gaelic footballer. 

“I was quite optimistic, and happy with the way Wales were going. Okay, the score didn’t help, but they seemed to have turned the corner in the second half against Italy, and brought that momentum into the England game. They could easily have won that game. Physically, it was the best defensive performance in two years.

 “Ball in hand, they were playing with width and depth and intent, getting the likes of Liam Williams involved in the game. And I was still optimistic after the first half at the weekend against Scotland. 

“But I have no idea what happened in the second half. Scotland frustrated Wales. They attacked them at the breakdown, Wales sent in one-in runners, looked quite lethargic at times, and had no direction with ball in hand. When they did break the gain line, they lost the ball in contact, and got very frustrated. So my worry is that is how Ireland play, they will frustrate Wales. They keep the ball very well. 

“If it’s the likes of CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien, Devin Toner, whoever, will be a real pain in the backside, and make it difficult for Wales in the breakdown. 

“So it’s a massive game for Wales. They could lose two games in a row at home, three in the championship, and go from fifth to ninth in the world rankings. Which doesn’t say a lot for the team. There is a lot at stake, it is a huge game for them. And they are under a lot of pressure.”

Improvement

Yet there is, suggests Williams, plenty of room for improvement within Wales, starting with their backrow: Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton appear to be playing to their same strengths at openside flanker, effectively two number sevens. 

“That was gambled with a couple of seasons back, and it worked. It’s a difficult one. It works sometimes, but then there are times when they are trying to do the same job. Look at Ireland, and they also have two number sixes, rather than an out-and-out seven, and it is effective at the moment. Because it is all about the breakdown and ball-carrying, getting over that gain-line. 

“CJ Stander’s stats are through the roof and he and Seán O’Brien are taking the benefit of that. Jamie Heaslip is more like a Tipuric. He has great feet, great ball-handler and more of a footballing backrower. Wales have two great players there. (Ross) Moriarty was great against England, so maybe play him six, and drop Toby Faletau in but, do you drop Sam Warburton? Or Tipuric, who is the form player for three seasons? It’s a conundrum.” 

Williams naturally drifted into an attacking position when spending a week at the Glenswilly GAA club in Donegal, the results of which can be seen on this evening’s The Toughest Trade (9.30pm, RTÉ2). He’d heard a little about Gaelic football over the years from Tommy Bowe and Shane Horgan, but admits he’d never heard of Michael Murphy (the Donegal captain who spent a week at Clermont Auvergne). The game itself, he admits, was a complete eye-opener.

Fitness levels

“That was one of the reasons why I wanted to try it, because I hadn’t tried it. Physically, I’d hoped I’d cope but I was probably surprised by the level of fitness on these guys because I knew it was an amateur sport and these guys in training just didn’t stop running. I was looking around thinking ‘am I the only guy blowing out of my backside here?!’ So that side of it was definitely an eye opener. 

“It took me back to my roots, training in the wet, trying to learn the game and having a bit of banter with the lads as well. That’s something I missed as a (professional) rugby player, having the crack with the boys, they basically took the mickey out of me the whole time I was there, which doesn’t sound very nice, but was actually very refreshing. 

“Everywhere we went everyone had a Glenswilly shirt or bobble hat. I went to the school visit and they’re all singing songs about Michael and the team. We’d a barn dance in the club and the support for the club was just incredible.”

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