Joe Schmidt’s winning mentality kept Ireland within touching distance, but the Welsh were too much and now a Six Nations hangs in the balance.
The Grand Slam dream of 2015 is over, and Ireland were forced to wake up in the most emphatic fashion possible. Ireland sauntered into the Millennium Stadium confident yet focused, but it was the quiet steely determination of Warren Gatland’s Wales that proved dominant in this epic battle of test matches.
The aerial game that had served Ireland so well was much to their detriment when employed, as Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny & co. commanded the skies with aplomb. At the breakdown, Ireland were equally nullified as they struggled initially with Wayne Barnes and the Welsh presence. The lineout failed us in our time of need, with Wales disrupting Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner. After a rampant start, the bloodthirsty Welsh put too much distance on the scoreboard and Ireland never recovered.
Much of Ireland’s success over the last few weeks have been largely accredited to – and deservedly so – Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton. They’ve been the heartbeat of this side, and have been the rhythm of everything Ireland do. Yet it wasn’t to be their day against Wales, with their failure to impose themselves on the game playing a large part in Ireland’s demise.
It was not Sexton’s best outing in the green of Ireland, and once again it outlines how important he is to the cause. When Sexton doesn’t play well, Ireland don’t play well. With some uncharacteristic missed touches, it seemed as though the Leinster fly half was trying too hard. “One of those days” – things just didn’t click for the Marys man, and it was a frustrating afternoon for Ireland’s pivot.
There are some pinpoint moments of the game that indicated that the day was Wales’ for the taking. The Jonathan Davies fend on Sexton in the opening five minutes of the game, Sam Warburton’s lineout steal deep in the 22 along with a Charteris take in the closing stages, and the butchering of the overlap in the corner that looked to be a certain try. It’s within these small moments the momentum of a game can turn in a flash, and all three of these scenarios ended up in Wales’ favour – symbolic of the day that was in it.
Mentally, Wales won that game after defending 32 gut-wrenching phases from an Irish side that struggled to convert. With all the dominance and momentum in their favour, Ireland failed to cross the whitewash. A critical point of the game, had Ireland got 5/7 points in those moments they would have been on the frontfoot against a tiring Welsh defence. But all that possession was to count for nothing. Wales cleared their lines, giving them a whole new lease of life.
Wayne Barnes has come under criticism for his role in the game, and there were some questionable calls made that Ireland can feel aggrieved about. He stamped his authority on the game immediately with some very harsh calls on Irish efforts at the breakdown, before two puzzling calls gifting Wales – the team going backward – penalties on the scrum.
Blaming the referee however is a futile experiment, and to do so belittles a classy Welsh performance and a poor Irish one. Ireland’s shortcomings were that of their own, and it was Wales’ excellence on the day that won them the game – not Wayne Barnes.
This game was the standout clash of the Six Nations thus far. An intense, hard fought test game, Wales were spectacular in defence and in making life difficult for Ireland. Slowing the ball at the breakdown, wreaking havoc in the lineout and nullifying Ireland’s kick game – Wales deserved their win, and worked hard for it. That Ireland remained close to winning the game despite their woes is a credit to how Ireland have made winning a habit under Schmidt.
While we can be disappointed that the Grand Slam/Triple Crown has evaded us again, this game taught us more than a win could. Ireland lacked conviction/leadership when on the back foot (the impressive Paul O’Connell aside), and struggled in their plan B. Witnessing the team’s meltdown however is more valuable now than in a few months’ time during the Quarter Final of the Rugby World Cup.
After being deflated in such an emphatic fashion, the grounding of this team may well be the making of it. A healthy reminder of what can go wrong will go wrong while highlighting any Irish flaws and inaccuracies, it should only serve to our benefit and make the team stronger. The lineout, the breakdown, and purpose in attack with ball in hand – Ireland will have a selection of areas to work on ahead of Murrayfield.
While the Slam is out of reach, the Championship is not. After a strong campaign it is important for Ireland to bounce back against Scotland, and while the odds may not be in Irish favour, they should target the top of the table as their end goal. Losing out on a Grand Slam that was very much for the taking is a sore spot, but we have to persevere.
Ireland have come a long way as a team and how they respond to this defeat is as important as anything. Scotland are not to be underestimated, but a strong Irish win is needed to maintain course on that upward trajectory.