All the pundits wrote off Ireland’s chances but the team dug deep and salvaged a draw
By Phil Rice
After 27 minutes last Sunday Ireland led Wales by 13-0 and were good value for that lead. A controversial penalty against Keith Earls for a tip tackle resulted in three points for Wales and they suddenly sprung into life and scored a try shortly afterwards.
So at half time Ireland led by only three points when they certainly had been the dominant team. The ascendancy had swung and Wales started the second half much the brighter and drew level shortly after. Ireland could have crumbled but they fought back and showed tremendous character.
The intensity for most of the second half was immense and both teams took a battering. With six minutes to go Wales took the lead through a penalty and the crowd groaned and feared the worst.
But two minutes later while nursing a bruised collarbone, Johnny Sexton stepped up and landed a crucial 45 metre goal to bring the sides level.
Both teams ran the ball from their own halves trying to get the winning score but to no avail and the game ended in stalemate. As Warren Gatland said afterwards, “Two trophies went out of the cabinet,” referring to the triple crown and grand slam.
Of the two coaches Joe Schmidt looked the happier after the game and well he might as Ireland were missing half a team while only Leigh Halfpenny was missing from the Welsh line-up.
Wales were many people’s favourites for the Championship so in the circumstances Ireland should take great heart from their performance.
New cap CJ Stander was made man of the match for an outstanding first international contribution. With 23 carries he easily led those statistics and he also made more metres than any other forward on the pitch.
Unusually Joe Schmidt singled him out for special mention after the game. Despite the relief of snatching a draw in the closing minutes Schmidt said: “The changing room atmosphere was a bit deflated after the game I think a bit cognisant of the fact that we have to improve further. “And that’s going to be a challenge because I think we performed really well today.”
Much credit must go to Ireland for preventing Wales from making a single line break in the whole match, while Ireland made five. Having lost defence coach Les Kiss to Ulster, Schmidt has taken that responsibility on himself until Andy Farrell joins the set-up.
He must have taken particular pleasure in the water tight defensive wall Ireland erected. After the game Schmidt said that Sean O’Brien could probably have played but they were mindful of “the four high intensity games around the corner” and decided to ensure he was best prepared for them.
In addition he was hopeful that Rob Kearney would be available for this weeks French match. There was also a chance that Mike Ross might be available for this week. The scrum was the one area that caused concern at the weekend where Nathan White had a torrid afternoon against Rob Evans.
Schmidt pointed out that he expected France to be stronger in this area than Wales.
Tadhg Furlong appeared to stabilise the scrum when he came on but at that stage Evans had also been replaced. Schmidt’s options in this area are limited with Marty Moore also crocked.
The French scrum was one of the few areas that looked impressive last Saturday. The anticipated improvement under new coach Guy Noves never materialised and it was remarkable to see a French team so limited in attacking ideas against a very ordinary Italian side. Their talisman Louis Picamoles retired injured on Saturday and is not expected to be fit for the Irish game.
We can take some comfort from that as he is by far their most influential player. It would be foolish to underestimate France in Paris and Noves will insist on a much improved performance from last week. It would have been disastrous if Ireland had not salvaged a draw at the weekend.
As it is they can look forward to the prospect of competing for the title, with the two toughest hurdles up next. France in Paris followed by England at Twickenham.
Joe Schmidt will be praying that Mike Ross will be fit for both games.