12 Dec, 14:42
Prop Cian Healy is expected to miss the start of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations after undergoing surgery on his injured ankle on Wednesday.
As Ireland kicked off with two minutes or so left on the clock and with a one point lead to defend the entire Irish backline held off, as the Welsh backline came towards them with ball in hand. I was shocked. There was no forward movement, advance, pressure, call it what you will whatsoever. They stood and waited. Stood.
The effect was to allow the Welsh to advance by degrees under no pressure whatsoever and they took the Irish up on the invitation to cruise into the Irish half, whence they were the beneficiaries of the marginal call on Stephen Ferris.
I can't work out the degree of responsibility here - though all the players are holding their hand up so fair play. I can't imagine any coach saying to his players 'stand still while they run at you' so there must be some player decision-making in this but the players must also have been given instructions to make sure they held their shape and not concede a line break at all costs. However, this gave the giant Welsh backs latitude to attack the gain line at will. The Ireland backline advanced only marginally before checking and trying to soak the ball carrier.
However, in my view, Ireland collectively just got this wrong. Gerry Thornley pointed out on 'Against the Head' that in the 2009 Grand Slam season Ireland pushed up hard and used O'Driscoll principally as a shooter on occasion. And it worked very well. You might argue that McFadden hasn't the international experience of O'Driscoll and it's a lot to ask of him to reprise the O'Driscoll role, but that doesn't relieve the entire backline of the responsibility to push up hard and cut down the space.
In adopting the slow line speed they did, the Irish backs fell into the 'death by a thousand cuts' situation we've seen before. What makes it so confusing is that, faced by bigger men the normal thing to do is close the space and get to them quickly before they have built up momentum.
And the irony is that, despite this defensive strategy, the Wales backline punched a big line break for Jonathan Davies' second try of the game. In fairness, it was a class try that owed much to George North's combination of size, quick feet and sleight of hand. As the blindside wing wrapped around Roberts he stepped outside D'Arcy, forcing McFadden to step into him.
However, the smaller man got bounced, sucking another defender onto him before slipping an exquisite pass out the back of his hand to the surging Davies under pressure. It wasn't a try that will be remembered fondly by Old Clongownians as Rob Kearney faded off Davies allowing him to score the try closer to the posts. Nevertheless, it was the classiest moment of the match. Having said that, it meant that Ireland may as well have been hung for a sheep as a lamb and enjoyed the benefit through the game of forcing Wales to execute deeper and under more pressure.
Coming on top of a penalty conceded on 51 minutes by McFadden for not rolling away that also owed much to slow defensive line speed, Ireland had conceded their unlikely 13-5 advantage in eight minutes.
Ireland had other defensive problems as well. Tommy Bowe spent a good portion of the match manically waving at his teammates to get over to him. Particularly in the first half, Ireland failed to match numbers down the short side. Again this resulted in a Davies try as Wales cleverly packed the blind with numbers and on the occasion of the try they enjoyed a five to two overlap as Tommy waved frantically.
It's one thing to use the touchline as your friend when you're one man short, but another when you're down more than one. The further effect of this is that you cannot push up hard in these circumstances and the opposition take the contact on their terms. The North try was the ultimate expression of this.
In fairness, the Welsh got caught for numbers as well when Rory Best cruised in for his try. D'Arcy showed good hands and Bowe did very well to exploit the numerical advantage.
And that was the thing about this performance. We actually played well when we held on to the ball. Problem was that we were very passive about getting it back when Wales had it, which meant that we didn't have it all that often (especially in the first half).
And with the concession of yardage (again by dint of a slow line), when we did get it we were in our own half and were simply kicking it back to the Welsh to relieve the pressure.
The issue of not having an out and out seven has, I think, been somewhat overstated in this match. Ireland did well in taking Wales on through the soft centre and around the fringes. We actually competed quite well for the ball at the breakdown (though you would have to acknowledge Warburton's departure at half-time here). The greater issue was that we were conceding the advantage in the collisions by not getting up in the Welsh faces and attacking the tackle, meaning ball presentation for the Welsh was easier.
Ireland deserves credit for changing the shape of the game in the second half. We took our chances pretty well and scored two good tries. The second owed something to the improvement in passing that has been overseen by Joe Schmidt at Leinster as both Sexton and Kearney (who also held his depth very well) delivered excellent wide passes to give Bowe his opportunity.
The review of the defensive strategy this week will have been very interesting and I will watch closely to see what system Ireland deploys this week. If Ireland were standing off out of fear of what the quick, strong Wales backline could do to them with offloads and trail runners then not much has changed in facing the French.
Personally I think we need to go for broke, get in their faces, hit them hard and take our chances. There's nothing more dispiriting than death by a thousand cuts and feeling that you've never really laid into them.
And even if we don't employ shooters and blitz them, let's at least not stand waiting for them to come to us. Let's not 'die wondering', as Denis Hickie said way back when.