Disappointment will be the major feeling for this Irish team after their 23-21 loss to Wales. That disappointment will be directed at themselves. Wales were the better team at the Aviva and fully deserved to win, regardless of whether or not Wayne Barnes made the correct call on Stephen Ferris’ last-minute tackle. Warren Gatland’s men played all the rugby and their physicality was spectacular at times.
In a strange role reversal of the World Cup quarter-final between these sides, Wales dominated in terms of possession and territory. Ireland struggled to put together phases for extended periods. Once again, this was in part down to Wales’ intelligence at the breakdown. How many times did we see Welsh tacklers and defenders lying on the wrong side of the ruck, slowing down the speed at which Conor Murray could move it away? Wayne Barnes was particularly tolerant in this aspect of the game, although he did penalise Fergus McFadden for the same offence, allowing Leigh Halfpenny to knock over a penalty.
As pointed out on The Touchline during the week, the breakdown was always going to be one of the key factors in this game. Wales came out on top and this helped them to overcome problems with their lineout. Allied to that was their aggressive line speed in defence. Welsh defensive coach Shaun Edwards has always preached the benefits of a proactive defence and we saw his work at first hand again today.
In complete contrast, Ireland were largely reactive in defence. The shape of Ireland’s defence is almost always good, in that they consistently have the numbers needed to defend any situation. The problem against Wales was that even though the defence was in position, the line speed was not there. Ireland’s first two or three steps up in defence were quick, but then they seemed to sit back on their heels and allow Wales to run at them. Too many times, Wales won the physical collisions. While it’s true that they have some prime specimens, particularly in the backline, that is no excuse.
The late withdrawal of Keith Earls didn’t seem to alter the anticipated Welsh game-plan as they continually attacked the 13 channel. Fergus McFadden had an extremely busy day defensively, and must be credited for his 16 tackles. However, the manner in which George North bounced him off for Jon Davies’ second try was disappointing. McFadden went in far too high on the freakishly strong 19-year-old. The tackling for North’s own try was again weak, as he went through three defenders in the left-hand corner.
We must applaud the Welsh skills for their tries. Rhys Priestland’s offload for Davies’ first try was gorgeous and North’s flick after bouncing McFadden was even better. With that flash of creative skill, the prodigy showed his game has more to it than sheer brutishness. Tommy Bowe was completely outplayed by his opposite number, although the Monaghan man did show his fine finishing ability for Ireland’s second try.
The frustrating thing is that both Irish tries showed what this team is capable of doing. They just couldn’t impose themselves over the Welsh enough to do it regularly, the ten minutes where Bradley Davies was in the bin aside. That ten minutes saw Declan Kidney’s men get on top and score through Bowe. Still, the immediate feeling was that they needed to get more than the 5 points they managed in that time. That would prove to be the case as Wales battered their way over through North and then won the game in controversial circumstances.
Would Ferris’ tackle have warranted a penalty and yellow if Davies hadn’t been sent to the bin earlier? Probably not, but it’s beside the point really. An Irish win today would have felt like an escape. Obviously the Irish players would have gladly taken a victory, but would it have been deserved? The euphoria of a win would have masked the deficiencies of this Ireland performance. Surely the end product of combining our undoubtedly strong provinces can produce more than what we saw today? Perhaps it will. This Six Nations is only just underway and it would be foolish to write off Ireland straight away.
Wales won this game because they dominated the physical battle, beat Ireland at the breakdown and produced moments of creative skill at crucial times. Declan Kidney has plenty of improvement to draw from his team and there is a lot they can learn from Wales.