This was likely to be one of the closest games in the tournament, with both sides containing power, skill and a tendency to make mistakes, so it was perhaps understandable that it started off quite dogged and closely fought, with neither side conceding too much space to the other.
Wales’ biggest problem last year was their defence, which has historically been their strongest feature, but it seemed to be improved against Ireland, holding the away side back and not allowing their danger players to get behind them. However, this defensive strength didn’t last, as they let Ireland have several phases on the ball, which allowed them to test out where the weak points where in the team. When Ireland scored the only try of the first half, it came because of a switch in line by Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw, which ensured that the space was available to get through. There were signs of improvement in the Welsh defence in the early stages, but still a lot more work to do before it is back to it’s best.
In attack, what will worry Wales is that it took for Ireland to go down to 14 men for them to start to find their feet. Once flanker Peter O’Mahony had gone off, Wales found more desire to run at the Irish players, and they put the pressure on, playing quicker passes and making the ball travel further across the pitch. However, they couldn’t make it count, and this is something that they needed to work on after half-time.
They were a little nervous in the second half, as shown by some of their passing, because they were overdoing passes down the line a lot in the first few minutes. This meant that Ireland could close them down, because they weren’t able to claim the ball and get on the front foot as they had been in the closing stages of the first half. However, this didn’t last long, because their first try of the game came when Ireland gave them the ball too easily, and Wales were alive to the situation. Josh Navidi, who had come on for Dan Lydiate in the first half, is an excellent player with the ball, and his ability to get to the ball before Ireland could react allowed Wales to open up the space to score. His offload to George North, who loves to run in space, was timed perfectly, and the try wasn’t the hardest to score once all of this had fallen into place.
A big area they will need to work on ahead of next week is the lineout, as this was a major source of errors for them. It’s importance to their attacking play was shown by their second try, which came when they won a lineout, moved the ball quickly down the line, and good hands by full-back Leigh Halfpenny freed up Gloucester winger Louis Rees-Zammit to go over in the corner.
In parts of this game, Wales looked much more confident with the ball than we have seen them in recent years, and that was good to see. They were still making some strange decisions, such as substitute scrum-half Gareth Davies’ decision to kick the ball forward with only ten seconds left of the game, rather than pass backwards and run down the clock, which led to Ireland almost sneaking a win. However, on the whole, there was plenty for them to be pleased about going into the rest of the tournament.
As for Ireland, they clearly wanted to test the Welsh defence where possible, and the early stages saw them kicking long and putting pressure on the Wales backs to catch it and clear it, which is something we know that they have struggled with. However, Ireland also made their fair share of errors, knocking balls forward in the early stages, and that gave Wales the ball too cheaply at times.
There were plenty of big tackles by both sides, but some were high, so both sides also had issues with their discipline at times. However, it also showed how both sides were invested in the game. Ireland in particular also had some good build-up play in the phases, but, again, this was often followed by a knock-on, meaning that they didn’t get the reward that some of their play deserved; this was the reason that, for the majority of the first half, the score stayed low.
One positive for Ireland was the performance of James Lowe. The Leinster winger was a constant threat to Wales, and he is the type of player who loves to have the ball, and will go looking for it when it doesn’t come to him. Against Wales, he was constantly coming off his wing to offer a passing option, and was also kicking well too, continually asking questions of the Welsh back line. Whenever he had the ball, Ireland caused problems for Wales.
What will please head coach Andy Farrell was that Ireland reacted well to the red card for Peter O’Mahony. Their try was particularly reflective of this, with Robbie Henshaw switching the play, finding the space in a Wales defence losing its confidence, and did the hard work in creating the gap; Tadgh Beirne finished off the move. Ireland had the momentum at half-time, despite being one player down, and that gave them hope at half-time.
In the second half, they continued to ask questions of the Welsh defence, with Henshaw in particular leading the charges and driving the home side backwards at every opportunity. He is the type of player who likes to cause problems, and that was a key factor in Ireland’s early second half dominance.
However, as the game went on, they got more tired, making more errors, and gave Wales more space to play in. They lacked composure with the ball, making more knock-ons and kicking across the pitch poorly, and this meant that they couldn’t advance forwards as often as they had been in the first half. This was highlighted by the final kick of the game, when, after Ireland had done well to keep the game alive, substitute fly-half Billy Burns had the chance to kick to touch for a lineout, but pushed it too far and ended any chance of them coming back into the game.
Like with Wales, Ireland will be pleased with parts of the game, but will also know that there are things they really need to work on ahead of the next one. However, they will also know that, had they had 15 men on the pitch, instead of 14, they could have had a better chance of staying in the game for longer.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were plenty of contenders for this, with Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe having really good games for Ireland, whilst Wales captain Alun-Wyn Jones made some good tackles, prop Wyn Jones carried the ball well, and Justin Tipuric was involved in everything, as he usually is. However, a player who made a difference to the game when he came on was Josh Navidi, who was alert to everything and sped up the play for his side. They really missed him last year.
Wales’ game next weekend sees them travel to Edinburgh for a Saturday afternoon clash with Scotland, whilst Ireland are at home, hosting France in Dublin for the Sunday match.