In the build-up to Friday night’s Six Nations clash between Ireland and Wales, outside of a few dissenting voices, a consensus emerged suggesting that Rob Howley’s rudimentary offensive strategy would be unable to break down a very physical Irish side.
However, in spite of being dominated by Ireland for much of the second half, it was Wales who were by far and away the more dangerous side in possession.
All too often Ireland relied on their power runners to smash over a Welsh defence that refused to give an inch. Like has often been the case in the past, Johnny Sexton’s loop plays didn’t create the necessary line breaks.
After CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien had been stopped on the gain line, Ireland became far too lateral in attack, throwing the ball wide in the hope that either Keith Earls or Simon Zebo could somehow beat their opposite numbers and the onrushing drift defence.
Although Earls beat seven defenders in the Principality Stadium, more than any other Irish player on the field, how many of those occurred when he cut back inside and into the waiting arms of the defence.
Contrast that with Wales, who looked to create space for George North and Liam Williams to run into. Time and again the deadly Welsh duo were running into open territory before the Irish defence could scramble across.
Wales straightened the line in midfield, created quick ruck ball and put their wide men into space with only green grass in front of them.
At the beginning of the above clip, Scott Williams could have easily handed the ball to George North, but instead took the ball into contact, where Justin Tipuric was immediately on hand to deal with Tadhg Furlong, creating quick ball for Rob Evans of all people to put three teammates into space.
The involvement of Tipuric is key, as it didn’t allow time for Ireland’s defenders to prepare for the subsequent phase. Indeed, just before Ross Moriarity moves the ball away from the contact, five Irish defenders can be seen lining up against Dan Biggar and North on the blind side.
At no point did Ireland even come close to creating an overlap such as this, and were therefore left trying to bludgeon their way over the gain line.
However, as with Ireland’s defeat to Scotland, without starting an openside who can ensure quick ruck ball, Joe Schmidt’s side are left with an enormous amount of possession and territory, but very little return.
Indeed, Ireland have become far to easy to defend against, and even their once feared line-out maul is being stopped at source against teams who know all too well that they don’t possess a natural jumper in the back row.
The Gray brothers picked off some crucial throws in Murrayfield, denying Ireland the field possession they so desperately crave to build a pressure game.
Likewise, Alun Wyn Jones set the tone with a crucial steal after Stander had barrelled through the defence in the 14th minute. Two further line-outs were lost in the second half after Wales were able to introduce the 6 ft 10 in Luke Charteris from the bench.
Joe Schmidt places a lot of stock in words such as “processes” and “execution”. In almost every post match interview he conducts, the kiwi coach continually refers to them in either triumph or defeat.
However, a pattern has developed which suggests the “process” may be wrong. Perfectly executing “processes” that fail to break down defences, or are too obvious to opponents makes little sense.
As much as fans can bemoan Robbie Henshaw’s decision to join a maul that was advancing toward the line, Ireland’s issues remain structural.
Indeed, despite some finger pointing in the direction of Paddy Jackson following North’s first try, (the dog leg he created allowed Rhys Webb put Scott Williams through a hole) the ambition Wales demonstrated following the initial line break contrasts with Ireland’s conservatism.
Wales looked to make the most of an opportunity that saw Williams throw an offload to Webb, and the scrum-half put Leigh Halfpenny into space with a 15-meter pass.
Due to Ireland’s inability to reach the breakdown promptly, almost every ruck became a rescue mission whereby green shirts had to arrive em masse to clear out Warburton and Tipuric.
In turn, they never had the quick ball necessary to isolate defenders who made even the slightest error. It became a numbers game, where the Welsh defenders very often outnumbered the Irish attackers.
Personnel changes are therefore not the only thing needed to bring more balance, but changes to the “processes” as well.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
On this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podcast, Lee Byrne tells us what’s gone wrong with Wales and how many dragons are likely to feature for the Lions.