Wales came to Dublin with their tails up. Grand Slam winners, World Cup semi-finalists and two wins full of enterprise had given them a spring in their step. The fact their victories came against limited opposition was noted but largely glossed over, they departed the Irish capital with natural correction in their expectations. Under Wayne Pivac they still have some way to be viewed as world beaters.
They are a work in progress, which is how it should be when there are nearly 40 Tests before Wales head to France for the World Cup. There are some fairly glaring facets to work on but you wouldn’t expect much less at these embryonic stages of Pivac’s tenure.
Ireland, despite limited fanfare, were never going to be easy pickings. They have lost only once in four years in Dublin in the Six Nations and Wales have profited there only three times since 2000.
The margins were narrow. With Wales having the better of the third quarter, had Hadleigh Parkes been able to ground the ball after taking a short ball from regional team-mate Gareth Davies then it would surely have been 19-14, but it was adjudged rightly, that he didn’t have control of the ball.
A few more minutes of sustained pressure ensued but when Dillon Lewis folded to Dave Kilcoyne’s at scrum-time, the passion of Tadhg Furlong, as he punched the air, was telling. Ireland cleared their lines and the Aviva sensed victory. It was a defining moment. Belief sapped from Welsh faces, leaving only Ireland and France with giddy dreams of Grand Slams still standing.
Wales were authors of their own demise
In rugby clubs up and down the land, at any age, you’re told to make a positive start. Against Ireland, Wales failed in that maxim. They were caught narrow in defence, guilty of indecision after failing to deal with a speculative Jacob Stockdale kick and left fighting for their lives before a minute had gone. It took a scrum-penalty to clear the lines but the tone was set.
In the opening 10 minutes, Wales desperately struggled to exit their own half, with Ireland dominating territory 75-25 per cent. Ireland’s pressure told when CJ Stander won a breakdown penalty, and after several phases, Jordan Larmour snaked over to score after some lax Welsh defending, evading Nick Tompkins, Josh Adams and Tomos Williams. Then after Williams had given Wales a barely undeserved lead, he fumbled a routine ball from Alun Wyn Jones as his brain was telling him to shape to clear the ball downfield with his left foot.
A silverback gorilla couldn't stop Tadhg Furlong from 3m out. The bloke is as wide as a two-bedroom terrace.
— Owain Jones (@OwainJTJones) February 8, 2020
Within 90 seconds, Tadhg Furlong, ably and abetted by Peter O’Mahony and Rob Herring, was thrust like a 130kg cannon ball over the try-line. Unstoppable. In the second-half, Wales again started slowly, pegged back in their own 22. From a rolling maul, an unsighted Josh Van Der Flier emerged with the ball leaving Romain Poite no option but to award the try.
For the final act, it was left to George North, who had not touched the ball in the second half, to fumble the ball deep inside his own 22 and give Ireland an attacking platform. After five phases and less than two minutes, the ball was worked out to the excellent Andrew Conway to power over despite the attentions of Johnny McNicholl.
Four basic errors. Four tries. Wales will head back over the Irish Sea with nul points.
The kids will be alright, but they’ll need time
Artists bemoan the creative difficulty of following a smash hit with a critically acclaimed second-album and at the Aviva Stadium, Nick Tompkins, 24, suffered a chastening second Test. He had a tortuous first half in a Welsh shirt where he was bounced in tackles, stepped by Larmour – he won’t be the first, or the last to suffer this indignity – and struggled for meaningful front-foot ball. He settled, atoning for his Larmour miss by tickling his rib-cage in the second-half but it was a steep learning curve. Another to look as if he’s still finding his feet is Johnny McNicholl.
The New Zealander has always looked a cut-above regional level but he’s finding out very quickly, that extra level of scrutiny can expose the most miniscule of weaknesses and the Kiwi will know his defence is being targeted. A favourite of Pivac, he will doubtless be given more chances, but early signs are that he’s not the finished article some suspected. There was also a noticeable loss of control once the hugely influential Dan Biggar departed the field.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 8, 2020
Jarrod Evans, 23, had a tough time imposing himself, often trying to break from deep with his quick feet but getting snagged by an aggressive Irish defence. In mitigation, he had less than an hour from Owen Williams pulling up in the warm-up to coming on for Biggar who had departed for an HIA. He will have easier days. Even Aaron Wainwright, 22, who has made such an impression in his first 20 caps, had a testing time with Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander schooling him at the breakdown. All these players will be in for analysis on Monday morning and emerge better for their Aviva experience.
Where was Wales’ width in defence?
Wales defended so narrowly in Dublin that you’d think they were playing inside the tramlines, giving the Irish wings the freedom of Dublin, as they ran amok. Three times in the first five minutes, Ireland attacked the left flank, spreading the ball wide as often as possible to stretch a scrambling North and using Jacob Stockdale’s pace to make headway. On the other side, it was Andrew Conway who played with guile, aggression and no little skill, with his pinpoint kicking game to leave McNicholl to play backtracking and trying to prise apart Irish defensive holes that simply didn’t exist.
North, a veteran of 96 Tests (93 for Wales) and 42 Test tries had one of his increasingly regular anonymous games. Indeed in the second-half when the ball was passed out to him on 73 minutes, some commented whether it had been his first touch of the half.
It was and he dropped it. Pivac has asked for more touches of the ball from North, so whether there is a reticence from the player to come infield and sniff out work or the game plan is simply not suited to him, something answers will have to be found.
Wayne Pivac certainly said the plan wasn’t to get sucked in like that and Byron Hayward will be working deep into the night to address why Wales’s defensive shape was ragged, in what was otherwise a sound performance without the ball, making 175 of their 192 tackles. Wales will hope Josh Adams’ hip knock isn’t serious because the queue to step into his shoes is suddenly less than convincing. If France have given a couple of ‘enfants’ a run in this tournament, what have Wales got to lose by giving Louis Rees-Zammit a try-out? Stockdale and Conway won this particular duel with ease.
Signs of artistry amidst the struggles
Welsh fans have spent more than a decade bemoaning Warren Gatland’s defensive, gnarled game plan, begging for more creative expression. Well now they have a coach who prefers artistry to brutality and they will have to recalibrate their immediate outlook.
There were moments, for instance, Wales’ first try, where ambition and dexterous hands made Pivac’s brand of rugby look very easy on the eye. Alun Wyn Jones’ subtle offload, one of three he made in the first half, Biggar’s options left and right, with Tompkins on his outside, and inside-ball to Williams was exquisite attacking play. Between the 33rd and 35th minute, 12 phases, where there were deft touches by Williams, Biggar and Tipuric that showed Wales were using the scalpel, not just the bludgeon to pierce the Irish defence. In the second-half, where Wales spent the 48th to 63rd minute in the ascendency, there were signs of a willingness through Parkes and Tompkins to punch it upfield, free hands and keep the ball alive.
They had more than double the offloads Ireland did (13 to six) suggesting a new style of play is trying to break out. Welsh fans will have to summon up that characteristic they’re not renowned for in the coming months; patience.
The band are back together
Okay, so there are only two members of this particular collective but Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric, so often an effective duo for Wales were a rare shaft of optimism on a tough day. Tipuric was Wales’ standout player. The fulcrum of all that was good. He made 19 tackles, held up innumerable Irish ball-carriers, leapt on stray balls, slipped ball out of the back of his hand like a magician and generally excelled in every facet of his play.
“Just now, there’s no relationship, we don’t work at all together."
Hard not to read this as an ultimatum. https://t.co/AAMoK9m5Ww
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 9, 2020
He was rewarded with a try in the game’s dying embers and the first to congratulate him was Faletau. The big No 8 has roomed with Tipuric on many occasions over the years, sharing their love of gaming through FIFA, and they share an innate understanding.
After a quiet first-half, Faletau came into the game increasingly, carrying through the middle, where his footwork to step out of contact, and power to drive through it was so valuable. A two-year hiatus from Test rugby has been keenly felt, and in only his fifth game back after all-too-fleeting cameos, so it was instructive that Wainwright was replaced and not Faletau. The Tongan-born No 8 will only get better as his match sharpness returns and that’s good news for not only Wales but the Lions.
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