If I wasn’t Irish, I’d definitely want to be Welsh. I’ve only been a handful of times, but Wales is quite a cool place. Beautiful hills and valleys, scenic rural landmarks and a language that’s wonderfully lyrical and poetic. For all that, the main reason I’d want to be Welsh is rugby. There are only two nations on earth where rugby is the national sport: Wales and New Zealand. In a rugby context, the Kiwis are prone to arrogance and lack the natural modesty and humility of their Welsh counterparts. Therefore, for all true rugby people, Wales is a uniquely special place. If you think of the true legends of the game, it’s likely that your list will contain a liberal sprinkling of Welshmen. Gareth Edwards, J.P.R. Williams, Phil Bennett, Barry John. Welsh legends them all. It’s no coincidence that such names formed the bedrock of the only Lions squads to have achieved back-to-back Test series wins in ’71 and ’74.
There’s also a unique egalitarianism about Welsh rugby. In a sport that was historically ridden with social elitism, Wales was the one bastion where the game was available to players from all social backgrounds; a place where miners and factory workers played alongside the accountants and solicitors. And who can deny the wonderfulness of their Cardiff home? I don’t care what you call the stadium nowadays or whether the roof is open or closed. There isn’t a more beautiful sound in rugby than 70,000 Welsh men and women belting out Hen wlad fy nhadau at the top of their voices.
You almost don’t mind losing to the Welsh. Rugby’s soul belongs in Wales and the game needs them to be strong. Wales’s players suffered merciless criticism in the last few weeks. It goes with the territory when rugby is a national obsession. There was always likely to be a reaction, therefore, and the only question was whether the Welsh response would be enough to overcome a confident Ireland. I must admit that I was feeling good about this one myself. Prior to the game, I ventured that Ireland would only lose in the event of either a massive Irish under-performance or if Wales put in an effort infinitely superior to anything seen this season. In the end, it was the latter. I thought Wales were superb last night: resolute in defence, tactically smart; clinical and creative in attack. When the home side sliced Ireland in two to put George North over for his first try, you sensed Ireland would struggle to respond.
And struggle they did. Although defensively brilliant in the first half-an-hour, the Irish diminished once they went behind. As we’ve seen before, this Irish team isn’t built to play catch-up. The Irish game-plan is predicated on winning collisions, maintaining a solid shape and carefully building scores. The system seems to break down irretrievably when the Irish are coerced into chasing the game. We saw how the Welsh ruthlessly took advantage of Sexton’s sojourn in the sin bin. Once the hosts crept ahead for the second time, moreover, the Irish struggled to regain momentum despite dominating territory and possession for long periods. It’s a recurring theme for this Irish team: a chronic inability to turn possession into points.
I heard Eddie O’Sullivan comment recently about how Ireland have to work very hard for their scores. It’s a valid point. How often do you see Joe Schmidt’s side score off first phase? Actually, it often seems to be the opposite. Tries are often only manufactured when the Irish attack has taken opponents through countless phases before eventually breaking them down. Either that, or they typically score off a driving maul or lineout move. Indeed, how often do you see this Irish side go through multiple phases, even in the opposition 22, and come away with nothing to show for it? We saw something similar in Cardiff two years ago and we saw it again last night. Ireland dominating possession but proving unable to manufacture many clear-cut opportunities. In a game of tight margins, three tries to nil tells its own story. I don’t necessarily buy the line that Ireland are too predictable, but you wonder if teams find them overly difficult to defend against. The impression persists that if you stop the Irish maul and have a good defensive lineout, you’re half-way there in terms of stopping Schmidt’s side.
Perhaps they’re not as good as we thought they were? Maybe, but Chicago wasn’t that long ago. We know only too well what this team is capable of. The problem has been consistency of performance. I think there is also a need to change some personnel. It sounds like sacrilege, but I think there are grounds for dropping CJ Stander. The Munster man is a superb workhorse and provides the sort of go forward ball that most teams yearn for. I can’t help but feel that he’s a bit too one dimensional at the highest level, though. Stander’s stats are off the chart, but sometimes mere figures don’t tell the whole story. Prior to yesterday’s game, the naturalised South African terrorised Six Nations defences with his peerless ability to break the gain line. Last night, every time he tried his usual trick, he got Sam Warburton. I’ve seen Stander hailed recently as a potential Test Lion. Munster’s favourite import is indeed a dependable and totemic player. In terms of international class, though, he’s not in Warburton’s league.
I’ve long been a fan of Peter O’Mahony. I think he’s a fine player. Technically brilliant, good at the breakdown and a consummate lineout operator to boot. The Cork man has had his injury problems, but he’s becoming impossible to ignore. Whether Stander or Heaslip is dropped to accommodate him is a debatable but secondary point. For me, O’Mahony has to start against England. Jared Payne will also come into contention and there’s no doubt that his reliability has been missed, especially in defence. The Henshaw-Ringrose partnership is worth sticking with, however, and Payne may have to settle for a bench spot. Iain Henderson will also come into the reckoning and there’s an argument for starting Cian Healy after a series of impressive cameos.
Selection aside, an international season that started so promisingly is ending with Ireland having an almighty point to prove. Having been slayed by the Dragon, Schmidt’s men will seek redemption next week against the old enemy. It’s a tough ask. It wasn’t meant to be this way. It’s great to see North resurrecting his Lions hopes, but you sense a few Irishmen are also fighting for selection (Rhys Webb’s performance last night highlighted that Conor Murray’s Lions Test berth is far from a formality). The English fixture may no longer be the grand finale we were hoping for, but it’s become a game Schmidt’s men, for a whole host of reasons, dare not lose.