View from next door: Ireland

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The Guinness Six Nations garners at least a month of build-up as the festive period departs in the rear view mirror and supporters get excited for trips across Europe, big days out in their national stadiums, and the dream of seeing their country’s captain lifting the Six Nations trophy with a Grand Slam in the back pocket.

Unfortunately for Welsh supporters that excitement and those dreams were killed amid a blistering 40 minute spell of Irish brilliance at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, as Andy Farrell’s men showed off a cohesion, physicality and accuracy that underlines why they’re currently the number one ranked team in the world.

Nothing takes away from how good Ireland were. Their pack in particular is a joy to watch with a skilled front row, an athletic and powerful engine room, Caelan Doris in world class form at number eight, and Josh van der Flier arguably the best player on the planet at this moment on the openside flank. With Johnny Sexton running a back line featuring the ever classy Garry Ringrose, lethal finisher James Lowe and all-round quality Hugo Keenan there’s little not to like.

However, with a Wales-focused hat on there was a lot to unpack from a Welsh performance that saw Warren Gatland’s men come second best in every department across the field on his return to the Head Coach’s spot at the stadium, both from an individual and a tactical standpoint.

Some of the problems were layovers from the Wayne Pivac era as the lineout continued to malfunction and the attacking breakdown lacked accuracy leading to a failure to secure clean and quick ball.

Beyond that though the defence was passive and lacklustre, particularly in the first half, which passed over into the kick chase. This also caused a desire to make key interventions and force turnovers, leading to the ill-discipline which underlined that opening 40 minutes and the inaccuracies in attack resulting in turnovers being conceded.

The question arising from this is the million dollar question that will define the next eight months for Wales; was that lack of pace and intensity resulting in passivity because of the age of the squad selected, or was it because Gatland and his new coaching ticket have not had enough time with the squad to get them up to the level required to make his system work both physically and mentally?

It’s a question that Gatland will need to answer quickly. If he feels it is purely due to the lack of time the squad have had in camp then little change will be required. Some selection tinkering may be needed, and injuries will also dictate changes in personnel, but overall it will be a similar 23 that we see pulling on the red jersey.

I also wouldn’t be totally surprised to see Wales win in Scotland next week, judging by how the national team have bounced back from tough losses even during the Pivac era, and perhaps with an element of how the Scottish have often failed to back up big wins.

If the answer is based on the age of the squad though, then there is very little time for Gatland to stand on ceremony.

12 of Saturday’s matchday 23 were aged 30 or over, including six of the 11 forwards. They, in particular, are the focus of the age profile with so much of the Gatland game plan stemming from the line speed and physical intensity brought by the pack.

Behind them though are eight forwards in the wider 37-man squad aged 25 or under, as well as seven forwards with fewer than 10 caps. Only four forwards are aged 26-19 and have more than 15 caps. It’s a concerning age profile putting the majority of players either in the twilight of their careers, or at the very beginning in an international sense.

Should Gatland think the age profile needs to change then that needs to happen immediately in order to give the young players a fighting chance of being competitive at the Rugby World Cup. Even if that doesn’t work out, at the very least those players head towards 2027 with an extra year of international experience and a RWC already in their back pocket.

Although I don’t expect many changes this weekend, how the next few weeks pan out will be massively interesting in where Gatland sees this team for the short-term building to France in September.

There’ll be an element of pain in whichever road Wales end up going down, but continual improvement will be key. It’s just whether that improvement needs to be more immediate if sticking with the old guard, or can afford to be gradual if switching to the next generation.

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