FIVE TRIES AND a comfortable win, but there is little sense of anyone getting too excited.
Andrew Trimble was excellent in his 34-minute spell on the pitch.
Joe Schmidt’s words and ideas have a tendency of filtering into the widespread Irish rugby consciousness and even the way in which we react to impressive wins these days is realistic and composed.
That said, any temptation to build the hype after yesterday’s success in the Millennium Stadium is firmly tempered by the fact that an inexperienced Wales team struggled with the some of the most basic rugby skills for large parts of the game.
In contrast, Ireland did the simple things with a characteristic efficiency.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la mieux chose.
One of the pillars of this Irish team since Schmidt took over has been their excellence around the rucks. Their back-to-back Six Nations titles were built on highly effective clearing out when in possession and dogged competitiveness on the ground when defending.
Seeing both elements in good health yesterday was encouraging ahead of a World Cup where the battle on the deck may well be decisive.
From the very first minute against the Welsh, Ireland made an impact post-tackle, as we see above with Jordi Murphy’s turnover.
Relocated to blindside for this fixture, the Leinster back row had a strong outing after starting with this steal, going on to win two of Wales’ throws at the lineout and getting through a heavy workload elsewhere.
His strength over the ball is impressive here of course, but the work of Jack McGrath must be highlighted too.
McGrath is always clever in using his body to aid Ireland’s breakdown cause, and shows that in the instance above. Having shoved Richard Hibbard to the ground, the loosehead prop fills the space just in front of where Murphy is going to attack the ball.
That serves to draw Aaron Jarvis and Ross Moriarty into rucking McGrath, given that he’s the only target in front of them. That in turn allows Murphy time to latch himself onto the ball before Nicky Smith (third arrival) can engage the Ireland flanker.
When Ireland weren’t actually getting their hands on the ball at the breakdown, they maintained a ferocious attitude towards spoiling Welsh possession.
Counter-rucking examples like the one above from Simon Zebo and Dan Tuohy were littered throughout the 80 minutes, as Ireland continually looked to test the security of the Welsh rucks.
With breakdown experts like Schmidt, Les Kiss and Simon Easterby continuing to drive this Ireland team, they pose a constant threat to the opposition at the ruck.
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Indeed, the possession platform for Ireland’s final try yesterday was a turnover in midfield, after a strong low tackle from Tommy O’Donnell on Rob Evans. The swiftness of that tackle allowed Donnacha Ryan to get a big right paw onto the ball and offer a threat.
It could be argued that Ryan shows no clear release here after assisting in the tackle, but in real time it’s hard for referee Glen Jackson to pick that out.
Ryan’s competition draws Kristian Day and Jake Ball into clearing him away, leaving the ball sitting pretty for Heaslip to scoop up, before he initiates the counter attack. After his excellent work here, Ryan found himself carrying the ball four phases later for a second involvement in the build-up to Felix Jones’ try.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Defensive leader Les Kiss will have been unhappy with certain elements of the Irish defensive effort away from the rucks – mainly several errors under fatigue late in the game – but there were more positives to be taken in this department.
Ireland put notable pressure on this inexperienced and rusty Welsh team, often forcing errors from Warren Gatland’s men.
Kiss and Schmidt are firm believers that defence can be an offensive weapon, a tool used to create turnovers and counter-attacking chances. The nirvana is creating a try through defence without the need for a multi-phase transition.
Andrew Trimble’s memorable hit on Eli Walker provided handsomely in that regard.
Clearly, the actual physical hit is the standout portion of the clip above, but Trimble’s intelligence in identifying the opportunity to welcome Walker into Smash City is equally as important.
Ireland are defending ‘four up’ here, meaning Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave, Keith Earls and Trimble all start up in the front line of defence, as opposed to a ‘three and a half,’ where Trimble would drop a little deeper to cover a potential kick deep to Ireland’s right.
The Welsh attacking formation here actually makes Trimble’s job a little easier, with four backs in a relatively tight space laterally outside James Hook.
There is another Welsh attacker out of shot here (fullback Hallam Amos), but Trimble is aware that Ireland fullback Felix Jones can cover that wide space and tackle Amos if the ball somehow makes its way out to Amos.
When we briefly jump forward to the moment where Trimble has made his hit, we can see Jones’ position on a different angle.
Jones is highlighted in yellow above, and has started deep towards Ireland’s right, initially covering the kick option we mentioned already.
Amos is circled in blue and if the ball somehow had made it through the hands of Walker or to the Welsh fullback via a kick pass, Jones could have come forward to tackle Amos. The red circle roughly indicates Trimble’s starting position.
What if Amos had simply chipped over the head of Jones as he moved forward?
Fergus McFadden is already working his way across to cover that possibility, swinging around from left to right on the ‘pendulum’ that all good teams operate in the backfield.
The knowledge of this cover fills Trimble with the confidence to go and make the hit that he identifies as possible when Wales run four backs in a relatively congested space outside Hook.
When play gets to the moment below, with Hook now all but certain to pass rather than kick cross-field or behind Ireland with a chip/grubber, Trimble’s mind is made up to shoot up and shut down the Welsh attack.
The easy thing for Trimble to do here is just sit off and allow Wales’ move to play out in front of him before he picks his tackle. Instead, he’s proactive in looking for the hit, showing an offensive mindset to make a big play that gets just reward.
The tackle itself is textbook too, with Trimble’s right foot in close to the body of the attacker, his shoulder driving up through Walker, a good wrap of the arms and a finishing position on top of the tackle.
A defensive leader for Ireland during the 2014 Six Nations too, Trimble made a telling impact in his 34 minutes on the pitch yesterday in Cardiff.
The choke tackle above shows the physical and technical strength of Trimble again, aided by the impressive Richardt Strauss and Iain Henderson, but it also highlights another good afternoon of kick chase from Ireland.
This was another totem of the Six Nations successes in 2014 and 2015, and Schmidt will have been satisfied to see his team willingly hare after kicks, repeatedly making clean Welsh fielding difficult.
Draw and Pass
While Gatland’s side struggled to keep their hands on the ball at times, Ireland’s skills showed up far more convincingly after six weeks of gruelling pre-season training.
Again, it wasn’t perfect from Ireland in this area, with a handful of missed opportunities on account of spilled balls or sloppy passes, but overall the signs were encouraging.
While Ireland did play with relatively simple tactics, as they always do, there was a slight freedom in some of their play as they counter-attacked and ran the ball from inside their own half a number of times against Wales.
The example above came early in the game and probably should have resulted in a try or at least points, but for a knock-on close to the Welsh tryline. Whatever about that frustrating conclusion, the build up was excellent.
It’s the most basic thing to highlight, but the draw and pass from inside centre Cave after Ireland identify the opportunity on the narrow side is superb. The Ulsterman times his pass perfectly, drawing Dominic Day into the hit and freeing his teammates into space.
Above, it’s Jamie Heaslip who puts a man away, intelligently exploiting the rabid nature of Hibbard’s defence to slip Strauss into space.
As is his wont, Wales hooker Hibbard burst out of the defensive line all afternoon in Cardiff, looking to cut ball carriers down behind the gainline with his characteristic shin-testing chop tackles.
He had some big successes as always, but Heaslip is wily enough to turn the strength into a weakness on this occasion.
Hibbard shoots up hard and blasts the feet from underneath Heaslip, but the Ireland captain’s sharp skills have already allowed him to get the ball away with an understanding little pop pass to Strauss on his inside shoulder.
At set-piece time, the simplicity of Ireland’s play was enjoyable too. Forwards coach Easterby and lineout leader Donnacha Ryan opted for a menu of plays that was straightforward and didn’t call for too much complicated movement on the ground.
The result was a success rate of 100% out of touch as Strauss and Rory Best’s throwing was on the button too. Ryan called smart options against a Welsh defence that seemed largely focused on the middle and back of the lineout.
Ireland were more than happy to win clean ball at the front when it was available, something that didn’t greatly affect their tactics of hitting Earls and Cave up the middle of the pitch on first phase.
Again, it’s typical of Ireland: minimum fuss to get the best result.
At scrum time, the evergreen Mike Ross gave Nicky Smith a tough afternoon, while Strauss and McGrath showed up impressively too. Behind them, the work-rate of Ryan and Henderson was, of course, important.
Ireland had a return of 100% on their own feed to the scrum as well, although the metric Schmidt really looks for in this part of the game is the ability to play off the scrum. The platform in the example above is absolutely ideal for Ireland’s backs.
While Cave runs a clever line and the defence from Mike Phillips is extremely poor, this is truly the pack’s try.
The forward momentum forces Phillips into an uncomfortable couple of backward steps before he can defend, while Wales’ entire back row is tied down by the advancing Ireland pack.
While Schmidt might pick out the defensive failings that allowed Wales to score three tries yesterday and perhaps highlight one or two of the missed chances from his own side, there were encouraging signs throughout this performance from Ireland.
Very much a group that constantly looks forward, we can be certain that Ireland will target improvement as they prepare to welcome back a handful of regular front-liners for next weekend’s clash with Scotland at the Aviva Stadium.
In a game that was billed as being about individuals standing out ahead of World Cup squad selection, it was pleasing to see Ireland deliver a cohesive display that showed they are still working hard to improve the basics that have set them apart in the last two seasons.
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