With the Irish team named, it’s time to move on to discussing the actual match on Sunday. Wales have yet to name their team with Rhys Priestland, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts all doubts at the moment. It would be no surprise to see all three start on Sunday, but Wales will definitely be without World Cup second-rows Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris. Also missing are tighthead prop Gethin Jenkins and hooker Matthew Rees. Those four are big losses to this Welsh side. Brian O’Driscoll is the only guaranteed first-choice player missing for Ireland.
Jamie Heaslip said yesterday that this game is a stand-alone fixture and has nothing to do with the World Cup quarter-final. He stressed the importance of moving on from that disappointment and that is certainly the right attitude. However, there are aspects of that game that can serve as a lesson to Ireland and influence how they approach this game. While the game on Sunday could, and probably will be a completely different type of game, it’s still worthwhile looking at where Ireland can improve on from the last meeting of the sides.
Selection-wise, the only changes from the starting team for that quarter-final are the inclusion of Andrew Trimble on the left wing in place of O’Driscoll, and Jonathan Sexton ahead of Ronan O’Gara at outhalf. Keith Earls moves into 13 to accomodate Trimble.
It is the choice of Sexton that looks like it could be crucial though. The Leinster outhalf has an undoubtedly more rounded attacking game than O’Gara. This is no slight on ROG, who is having a superb season and offers totally different strengths. Still, Sexton is far more of a threat in attack, well able to make breaks himself and his passing continues to improve. O’Gara’s distribution is spectacular at times, but he offers no threat himself. At the World Cup, O’Gara didn’t beat a single defender, while Sexton beat 6.
So why does this even matter? It matters because Ireland should have got a lot more from that quarter-final against Wales. Ireland had more possession (58%) and dominated in terms of territory (62%), yet they could only manage 10 points over the course of the game. While Wales’ heroic defensive effort played a massive part in this, it’s still a poor return. Ireland have to get more return from their possession and good field position on Sunday.
That’s why the inclusion of Sexton makes sense. If he can bring his Leinster form to this game, Ireland’s backline should be able to threaten the Welsh more often. In that World Cup match, Ireland only managed one clean line-break. Once again, the supreme Welsh defensive organisation must be applauded for that. But it is easier for a midfield to defend when they know that the opposition outhalf poses little or no threat himself.
As was well-documented at the time, Wales targeted Sean O’Brien to great effect in the quarter-final. Despite making a whopping 22 carries, O’Brien only managed a total return of 24 metres, without beating a single defender. It’s essential that the Irish pack share that workload this time around. Promisingly, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell and Cian Healy have been extremely effective on the ball for their provinces in recent months and they must look to take the focus away from O’Brien.
No. 8 Jamie Heaslip is another who needs a big game in terms of ball carrying. He had a strangely quiet night in the quarter-final and will surely be intent on imposing himself this time. O’Brien is at his best when he is given a chance to run at defenders one-on-one. He needs to do less of the close-in carrying from slow ball and be used with a little more space and time.
One of the most frustrating things for Ireland in that World Cup loss was the manner in which the tries were conceded, particularly Jonathan Davies’ one. The centre went through feeble tackle attempts from Cian Healy and Keith Earls. While Ireland’s defence is generally excellent, moving Earls to 13 puts a lot of responsibility on him. Wales will almost certainly target the Munster man’s defence and he will have to be at his most alert. With Gordon D’Arcy’s defence slowly weakening in recent times too, the Welsh will expect to get some change from the Irish midfield.
Another key area in Sunday’s game will be the breakdown. This is an obvious thing to say, as the breakdown has great importance in any rugby match. But the World Cup showed how vital the area has become in international rugby. The best teams at the tournament fielded breakdown specialists – the All Black’s Richie McCaw, France’s Thierry Dusautoir, Australia’s David Pocock, South Africa’s Heinrich Brussow and Wales’ Sam Warburton.
This kind of player has arguably become as important to international sides as a star outhalf. Winning the breakdown battle is essential in international rugby. Post-tournament stats showed that at RWC 2011 the average number of breakdowns per game was 162, well up on 2007’s figure of 144. But the most relevant figure was that the highest number of breakdowns in any match was 225 in, you guessed it, the Ireland vs. Wales quarter-final.
Declan Kidney hasn’t found his breakdown specialist, but a collective focus on winning this aspect of the game has surely been stressed. Alternatively, Ireland could look to limit the importance of the breakdown on Sunday. The choice of Sexton at outhalf and more selective use of the big ball carriers relates back to this. With Sexton at 10, Ireland will hope to keep the ball alive more. Sexton’s threat will mean more one-on-one situations, and in turn, rucks that are easier to win. If O’Brien and Ferris are also used in better circumstances they can create better front foot ball, and limit the amount of opportunities for Wales to win turnovers.
That’s why this game has the potential to be completely different to the World Cup quarter-final. Ireland will surely recognise that they need to change the manner in which they attack the Welsh. Declan Kidney failed to alter the Irish game-plan for that loss, simply playing the same way they had in every match up to that point. The Welsh side altered their tactics to target the Irish side and now that is what Ireland have to do. It should be a fascinating battle.
Wales have yet to name their side for Sunday, but just a brief look at how their injuries might affect them. Losing their second-row will have obvious effects on the lineout. Alun-Wyn Jones is also one of Wales’ more prolific ball-carries. In the quarter-final, he was Wales’ top carrier with 12. The potential loss of Dan Lydiate would have an impact on the relentless Welsh defence. He made an incredible 24 tackles in the quarter-final, without missing one.
Jamie Roberts’ fitness will be important if Wales do look to target the Irish midfield. He is hard to slow down when he’s at his best. D’Arcy and Earls would much rather the prospect of Ashley Beck/Gavin Henson/Scott Williams at 12. Gethin Jenkins’ injury will be a relief for the Irish front-row and they will look to dominate at scrum-time. Finally, if Rhys Priestland were to miss out, it would greatly alter the Welsh game-plan. James Hook is a totally different outhalf, while Stephen Jones looks as though age is catching up with him.
There are plenty of reasons for Irish fans to be optimistic.
Photos courtesy: Joslyn Layne, Ross Wynne, Brendan Rankin.