By Tadhg Peavoy
A draw is never satisfying. It’s like spending two weeks on a beach holiday, where it rains every day, and you come home as pasty skinned as you were before you left.
And that is how the Irish and Welsh squads will feel after Sunday’s clash. They both threw kitchen sinks and each other and yet neither have the major foothold they will have wanted heading into round two.
However, from an Ireland perspective, given how the media and public had written off their chances, this was a good result.
Neither side delievered a performance that would get the hearts racing in terms of creativity or throwing caution to the wind, but both teams did deliver hugely clinical performances that were defined by security of the ball and defence above all else.
Given what we’ve seen from Wales since Warren Gatland, and Ireland under Joe Schmidt, this is perhaps no surprise.
Ireland simple and effective
But Ireland were decent. What they did was simple and effective as they pounded the fringes, using CJ Stander as the expected battering ram. His performance was everything that was expected and the South African-born back rower looks every bit the man that will inspire Ireland’s back row going forward. With a fully fit squad a back row of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander looks a very potent one. That said Jamie Heaslip gave another excellent display at the Aviva, most especially at the breakdown where his industry and rucking was exemplary. An impact role off the bench could suit the Leinster man and add huge experience as a third quarter injection of power.
Likewise Nathan White did everything he was asked of at tighthead. Mike Ross and Marty Moore remain more appealing options, but the criticism White has taken should be put to bed after today’s encounter. He is more than capable at this level.
Expand the gameplan
The talk after Ireland’s limp exit to Argentina in the Rugby World Cup was blamed largely on lack of personnnel due to injury. But the larger truth is that Ireland’s dependence on kick-chase was an inadequte method of winning top-tier matches outside of Six Nations and Test match encounters. To advance, Ireland’s game must widen and today was the first hint that a sea change in approach is in the process of occuring.
Gone was the kick-chase and in came a retention game, where handling the ball became paramount, as Ireland tried to punch holes in the Wales defence.
That will be applauded all day long and is the most satisfying aspect of what Ireland did right. The stats reveal a lot in this aspect. 361m run by Ireland and 342m run by Wales. Ireland only kicked from hand 20 times, less than Wales’ 25.
Ireland added this more attacking approach to a rock solid set piece. Five from five at the scrum and eight from nine at lineout time.
Dig deeper again and this platform released four line breaks and 14 defenders beaten. Off that platform why didn’t Ireland win the tie?
The fact this was opening weekend and a lack of game time playing together has to be taken into account, but perhaps more importantly a lack of ambition needs to be earmarked as a major reason Ireland don’t have two points. The backline on display from 9 to 15 has the talent to cut open defences, but it needs to be unleashed.
That only comes from a more cavalier attitude in attack, which can open up game breaking opportuties.
Ireland need more from the midfield. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne offer huge solidity, but are not being given the freedom to roam and take pre-planned plays as much as they need to do damage. Likewise, the back three of Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo needed more of the ball and earlier, with Ireland spreading it wide off early phases.
Should personnel change?
The other big question here is should the personnel be different. Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey and Garry Ringrose all offer different options in the centre that can game break and offer a physicality that Ireland need.
Given that Henshaw is a certain starter, bringing in McCloskey at 12 and pushing Henshaw outside him looks a very good option.
Payne could yet be accomodated in his preferred role at 15, with Zebo covering the back three off the bench.
These changes would no doubt make Ireland more attacking and dangerous. But as always, change comes with risks too.
Away trips to Paris and London are dangerous places to experiment, and with a championship very much in Ireland’s crosshairs Schmidt is unlikely to mess with what he has. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, being the motto he will most likely stick with.