Big improvement needed from Ireland to beat Wales

Big improvement needed from Ireland to beat Wales
1 February 2020; The Ireland team stand for Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

By Phil Rice

Ireland’s new coaching regime breathed a collective sigh of relief at the end of last Saturday’s tense opening Six Nations match against Scotland.

This was not the smooth opening victory that Andy Farrell would have hoped for.

Scotland came with an aggressive game plan determined to improve on their insipid display against Ireland in Japan just four months previously.

They began with a ferocity that clearly surprised Ireland and the home team had to show determined defence to withstand the onslaught.

Newly installed captain Johnny Sexton belied his absence from the playing field for the previous ten weeks, with a controlling performance, and all of Ireland’s 19 points. He showed all his experience in steering his country to an unconvincing victory.

 

Before we criticise Ireland’s performance too much, though, we should recognise the much-improved performance from of Scots.

Despite missing several key players they went about their business with an intensity which they maintained throughout the match.

On the evidence of this performance no team will take them lightly during this Six Nations.

However, there were areas of concern for Ireland. The scrummage is an area where Ireland have consistently performed well for the past three years. But Scotland were clearly superior last Saturday.

 

Cian Healy, in particular, struggled against the impressive Zander Fagerson, although some of the Scotsman’s technique was less than legal at times but the disappointing referee, Mathieu Raynal, didn’t appear to appreciate all the legalities of front row play.

Worryingly, Healy’s back-up loosehead, Dave Kilcoyne, had to leave the field after just three minutes of his substitute appearance, with a head injury. Tadhg Furlong also injured his calf muscle.

Fortunately, Ireland have some depth in their front row options these days, but Saturday’s Round 2 opponents, Wales, will be very relieved if Furlong is unavailable.

Wales completely destroyed an inept Italy 42-0 in Cardiff, but it is difficult to assess the measure of that result, given the disappointing effort from the Italians.

 

But it’s worth remembering that former Wales head coach Warren Gatland used to say that they “always play well against Ireland because our players get beaten week-in, week-out by the Irish provinces and they are very motivated to beat them as a national team”.

It is true that Wales have consistently performed well against the Irish in the recent past and the memory of the comprehensive victory for Wales in Cardiff last year will still haunt the Irish players.

The greatest concern for this Irish team is the lack of creativity from their backline.

Sexton controls the game very well but doesn’t provide the spark that is required to break down modern day defences.

There is still too much dependence on box-kicking for gaining territory and not enough ingenuity in dismantling defences.

 

Last Saturday, Ireland rarely got over the gain-line after first phase possession. Their second phase moves were almost always from a retreating position.

While Stuart McCloskey may have limitations, he invariably gets his Ulster team on the front foot for their second phase possession.

Perhaps Farrell might consider the burly Ulsterman for use as a battering ram.

Dan Biggar could no doubt think of more enjoyable ways of spending a Saturday afternoon than having McCloskey running down his channel continually.

Bundee Aki, played well on Saturday, but there were few line breaks from the Connacht man and very little opportunities provided for the wingers to test their opposite numbers.

Garry Ringrose looks to be the main threat in midfield and his injury at the weekend, is a worrying development.

The most unfortunate player on the pitch last Saturday was the debutant Number 8 Caelan Doris, whose introduction to Test rugby lasted a mere four minutes, before a clash of heads with Adam Hastings ended his involvement.

There is little doubt that this talented individual will have considerable opportunity to show his class at this level in the future.

Conor Murray’s distribution was laboured and there was a notable improvement in the pace of the delivery provided by John Cooney when he took the field.

Out wide, Andrew Conway got little opportunity to display his prowess and Jacob Stockdale continued in his 2019 form, mixing threatening bursts with brittle defence.

 

Jordan Larmour is an exciting player who creates expectation every time he gets the ball.

However, he needs to link up with support players after his mazey runs rather than running up blind alleys at times.

It’s worth remembering that last Saturday was the first game for a new coaching team and they should be cut some slack. Irish fans can expect an improvement on Saturday.

However, Farrell needs to consider the options available to him in some positions, where the tried and tested players are not necessarily the best available to him.


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