The Friday night kick-off is not universally liked within the Welsh rugby public, however there were few complaints from fans leaving the Millennium Stadium as they headed off into Cardiff following a resounding 22-9 win for Wales over Ireland.
Although the win did not make up for the disappointments of losses against Scotland and England, it certainly averted a potential disaster for Robert Howley, his coaching staff and players as they regained some of the lost pride, while also bringing a timely boost to Wales’ world rankings ahead of the World Cup pools draw later in the year.
It’s important not to get carried away after Friday’s win, there are areas that still need to be worked on, and against a better side than Ireland on the night we may have struggled, but you can only beat what’s in front of you and there was certainly a job done on our Celtic neighbours.
In terms of analysis there’s been plenty written on the quality of the defence, which was excellently organised by Shaun Edwards and executed by the players, while the attacking game took baby steps towards the flat, fast and expansive style that fans and pundits alike have long been calling out for.
A pleasant change to my analysis this week, as there’s a positive feeling throughout and no having to defend the scapegoat of the week! Here’s a few things I noticed when watching the game back, thoughts welcome as always…
Set Piece is key
Wales’ scrum and lineout work on Friday night was of the highest order. After some concerns pre-game surrounding how they would fare against the Irish pack, the tight five really stepped up with their scrimmaging, slightly edging the battle despite giving up around 10kgs in weight to the opposition.
Rob Evans makes a mess of Tadhg Furlong here, and the loose five do an excellent job in turning the scrum around to the left so that Rhys Webb has got an easier pass out to the backs congregated on that side, and they don’t have to worry about any of the Irish back row breaking off early and helping their defence out on first phase ball which ends up with Wales in Ireland’s 22.
The Welsh pack turning the screw here means CJ Stander on the blindside has to keep his head down, and cannot look up to see Liam Williams streaking down the wing. With the scrum again turning to the left it takes number eight Jamie Heaslip out of the game and gives the winger a clean run at Keith Earls to make plenty of metres.
Couple the scrum with lineout superiority and there’s an excellent base to play from. Ken Owens was definitely in with a shout of making the Lions tour squad this summer, but Friday’s performance was so impressive that he’s likely nailed on for at least a spot in the test side should he stay fit.
The lineout calling was simple, but effective, from Alun Wyn Jones thanks to the execution by Owens. Tipuric was used a lot at the front to secure the ball, with the throwing matching the incredible speed that the flanker can get off the ground with.
Using that option a lot also meant that on this crucial defensive five metre lineout could go to the back and coming off the top quickly gives Ross Moriarty that slight advantage when carrying to setup the exit.
This was the best throw of the day, hitting Sam Warburton right at the top of his jump so the ball could be secured over the much taller Devin Toner, and the Irish competing for the ball meant they were sucked in to the dummy maul setup before the backs were unleashed for George North’s first try of the evening.
11 out of 11 lineouts won for Ken Owens, and in comparison to his opposite number and potential Lions rival, he was magnificent.
Ireland’s captain was 10 from 13 in his lineout throws, with both Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris stealing ball for Wales above, despite not jumping as high as their opponents in both cases. Set pieces such as these are crucial at the best of times in a Six Nations match, let alone in a Lions test, which leads me on to…
Big players make big plays
This for me was the biggest aspect of Friday’s win, certain players really stepping up to the plate, showing a desire to prove critics wrong and even going above and beyond what’s expected of them in their respective positions.
Nobody fits the bill of proving the doubters wrong than George North on Friday night. In his very first run he puts Rob Kearney flat on his backside, setting the tone for a performance signalling a return to his best. The reward was two tries, and you can see exactly what the first of those meant to him. A classic North finish from close range, carrying defenders over with him. Spot on!
He even secured a turnover in midfield! These tone setting moments can be huge for the team and they really seemed to benefit from a number of those early in the game, allowing them to quickly build confidence.
The first clip may seem inconsequential, but at a time when Ireland were trying to exert some pressure that Liam Williams clearout to secure the ball for Wales was massively welcome. It also takes the pressure off the forwards having to pile back and counter-ruck against a forward driving Ireland. Sure he got a few pats on the back for that one.
Clip two speaks for itself though. Effort, desire and aggression from Sam Warburton, and the start of the road to roughing up Johnny Sexton which, along with Conor Murray’s injury, really took the wind out of Ireland’s sails.
Murray picked up the knock while putting in a tackle on George North, which unfortunately denied us spectators a chance to see him take on Rhys Webb in a Lions showdown. Webb did himself no favours though, not just with his scrum-half play, which was excellent, but how he did stand up in defence and put the hits in successfully.
Two great tackles, on a charging Rob Kearney, and even more impressively a hit and drive sideways on Ireland captain and hooker Rory Best. When even the smallest member of your team is having a defensive stormer you know it’s going to be a good day for Shaun Edwards.
Webb also had to step up in terms of creativity, with Dan Biggar struggling in his new flat position at first receiver. His setting up of both North tries was superb, but this was by far my favourite play in the game.
Footballing skills that Jonny Wilkinson would be proud of as he puts the ball on a sixpence for Liam Williams, and as the attack goes on to cause Johnny Sexton to receive a yellow card, it was a crucial attacking moment. With Ireland down to 14, Wales went on to score 10 points and took a real hold of the game.
Although Dan Biggar wasn’t the main creator in the side as perhaps you’d expect a fly-half to be, it by no means meant he had a poor game overall. In fact he produced some of the key moments.
The defensive covering and return kick are world class. To take the team from tight on the touchline inside their own 22, to a lineout on Ireland’s 10 metre line is a massive psychological boost to the forwards and a real pressure reliever. I applauded that in my living room, immense.
Clip two I certainly didn’t applaud at the time, in fact I was looking for new underpants, but watching it back now I can appreciate the cool head and large testicles, as well as the awareness, required from Biggar to watch the ball over the line and save a five metre attacking lineout.
Big plays didn’t stop with the starting XV either, as the advantages of having Taulupe Faletau and Jamie Roberts on the bench were plain to see in a situation such as Friday night.
Great desire from Faletau to reach the tired Sexton’s kick, and then if there’s one man you want to power the ball in from 10 metres it Jamie Roberts. I may not agree with his continued inclusion on the bench, but there was no better man to lead the defence and a power based attack late in the game on Friday. Good on you Doc!
Hardest to the back of the row
Friday was not a massive amount about the team cohesion on show. A lot of good individual performances secured the win, as well as a solid defensive line, with the team sharing the common goal of win at all costs. However, in one specific area there was teamwork aplenty.
At the start of the tournament there was almost pitch battles over the Sam Warburton v Justin Tipuric debate. It was GM v Ford-esque. However, now we have peace in our time (where’s Roger when you need him?). There is universal agreement that Sam AND Tips is the way forward. They’re basically the new Ant and Dec.
The relationship has flourished since the Italian curtain raiser, and Friday was the evidence of that as really they should have won a joint man-of-the-match award.
Third minute of the game and it’s a welcoming committee for Ireland’s in form ball carrier CJ Stander who runs straight into the Wales wall of flankers. They pocketed the Munster man throughout the game, nullifying the big opposition threat and stopping them getting a forward platform.
After that they went to work at the breakdown. Some official stats I saw said no turnovers, but there was certainly very close attempts.
Warburton in clip two certainly makes a turnover but is thwarted by the referee playing an earlier advantage, while I don’t see why Tipuric in the first clip isn’t awarded a turnover.
Turnovers aren’t the be all and end all though, and on Friday the most important work didn’t come from whether any penalties were won or ball secured on the floor, but the slowing down of Ireland’s attack.
Five examples off good jackals that, although they don’t win the ball, slow Ireland’s recycling of the ball sufficiently to allow Wales’ defensive line to reform and be as effective as it was throughout the 80 minutes. It really was a superb performance by the two of them, and the whispers they both may start for the Lions in New Zealand certainly grew louder over the weekend, and why not?
Overall, definite positives to take forward from Friday, and if another performance like that can be churned out in Paris to round off the tournament then not all hope will be lost going forward.
In terms of team selection I wouldn’t particularly bother changing anything for the France game. Yes I’m still in favour of the likes of Sam Davies, Owen Williams and Steff Evans getting game time, but is there any point in throwing them in for one game at the Stade de France? Better off keeping them for the summer tour in my opinion.
Friday did get me somewhat excited in Team Wales and their Six Nations campaign, it was a terrific test match and at times the attacking game was almost entertaining from Howley’s men. This final weekend won’t be quite as easy watching, not because England stand a chance of winning the Grand Slam, but because we’ve come so far without a Warburton injury. Stay safe Sam!!