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Analysis: Ireland get taste of own medicine in early stages against Wales

Warren Gatland’s men dominated the early aerial exchanges at the Millennium Stadium.

THE OPENING 14 minutes or so of Saturday’s Six Nations clash at the Millennium Stadium saw Wales come out of the blocks in a ferocious manner, with Ireland appearing to be utterly somewhat by surprise.

Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland have placed a major premium on starting games efficiently, and to be 12-0 down after such a short period of time against Wales meant being in a position they have rarely been in before.

Tommy Bowe and Liam Williams Ireland struggled in the air against a determined Welsh effort. Source: Crispin Rodwell/INPHO

The only other time Schmidt’s Ireland gave up such notable lead to the opposition early in a game was the 2013 defeat to Australia in Dublin, when they trailed 10-3 with 18 minutes on the clock.

They were 3-0 behind England after 24 minutes of last year’s Six Nations game at Twickenham and lost, while New Zealand remain the only side to have reeled Ireland in after Schmidt’s men led early in the game [they were 19-0 ahead with just 17 minutes gone].

So often, Ireland use their aerial superiority, a strong share of possession and their place-kicking to construct an early advantage, but on Saturday that scenario was flipped on its head as Wales excelled in those three areas to go 12-o up.

Look to the sky

Wales have been excellent in the air throughout this championship, possessing as they do a number of players who thrive under the high ball.

Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams and, to a lesser degree, George North are all extremely comfortable at fielding.

Indeed, Roberts, Halfpenny and Williams have all worn the 15 shirt at international level, meaning they rival Ireland for the number of former and current fullbacks in their backline.

Along with those strengths, Ireland were oddly weak in the air at the Millennium Stadium, highlighting the general inaccuracy in their play.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The very first kick-off of the game saw Ireland make an error in this area of the game, Rob Kearney uncharacteristically spilling the ball as he came forward to gather from Dan Biggar’s kick.

This is usually the bread and butter of the Ireland fullback’s game, and he rises off the ground strongly to put himself in a good position to gather possession in this instance.

Sam Warburton gets his right arm up as a limited contest, but even at that it’s not a hugely pressurised catch for Kearney to make. 55 seconds later, and with Ireland having defended through eight phases, referee Wayne Barnes signals a penalty for Wales.

We may look at that decision and others in a separate article, but the underlying point is that Wales’ 3-0 lead comes from an initial Ireland error in the air.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Just over three minutes later, Schmidt’s men lose the ball in the air again and this time it’s in a one-on-one contest.

The kick itself from Halfpenny, like Biggar’s above, is excellent and Wales deserve major credit for their general kicking game against Ireland, as they made their touches with the boot contestable thanks to ideal distance and hang time.

However, Conor Murray has lots of time under this kick to deal with it, and he might just reflect on the timing of his arrival as he looks to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

HP 1

As highlighted above, Murray’s initial steps are backwards towards Ireland’s tryline, and the intention is to give himself space and time to jump forward into his catch, through the ball.

However, the Ireland scrum-half’s movement forward is just a little too early, meaning he leaves himself underneath the ball and having to jump straight up into the air, rather than having the forward momentum Halfpenny does.

HP 2

That allows the 5ft 1oins Halfpenny to out-jump 6ft 2ins Murray [although the fullback's explosive power helps too] and regather his own kick. The early steps by Murray are a small thing, but it’s a technical detail that Schmidt’s side so often get 100% right.

Five phases later, Jonathan Davies fends Johnny Sexton into the ground and by phase 15 of this Welsh attack, Peter O’Mahony is penalised at the breakdown. A 6-0 lead, the three points once again stemming from an initial Irish failure in the air.

JR Source: RBS Six Nations

Jump forward to the 13th minute, and again Ireland are losing a contest in the air, with Wales already out to 9-0.

Roberts is the man to win this Biggar bomb over Kearney, but again it’s the type of kick that the Ireland fullback normally eats up. His position to gather appears to be better than Roberts’ and he has lots of time to sight the ball.

Sometimes the contest in the air simply comes down to whichever player wants the ball more, and it’s Roberts who has the stronger body language here. Like Murray above, the Racing Métro man actually has to wait under the ball for a split second, but still he manages to win it.

Two phases later, Jack McGrath struggles to roll away from a tackle and Barnes opts to penalise him. Halfpenny completes a 12-0 Wales lead before 14 minutes of the game have elapsed.

Contrast

Thanks to the success of their kicks early in the game, Wales dominated the possession stakes and Ireland didn’t have their first carry until the 8:15 mark, when Kearney opted to run back a Welsh exit.

Ireland did have three possessions in that time, but opted to kick back at Wales on those occasions.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The first comes above and we can see that Biggar is able to complete a clean catch uncontested. We’ve highlighted several times before how good Ireland are at competing in the air after their own kicks, but it doesn’t happen in this instance.

Simon Zebo is the primary chaser here from Sexton’s kick, but it’s worth noting what Wales do to ensure he cannot get in the air against Biggar.

Kick 1.1

Taulupe Faletau is ahead of Biggar, but he’s keen to do everything he can to aid his teammate in making a successful catch. The number eight shifts his running line across the pitch to provide cover from his out-half, blocking Zebo’s running line.

At the same time, George North runs a clever tracking block on a similar line to Zebo and combines with Faletau to provide a catching screen for Biggar.

Kick 1.2

It’s against the laws of the game, but the intention here is not to bemoan the Welsh tactics. Instead, we might ask whether Ireland could have done anything similar in the earlier examples of aerial contests they lost.

Could Devin Toner have provided more protection for Kearney by cutting Warburton off more effectively on the first kick off? Could Jared Payne have shepherded Roberts away from the contest before he beat Kearney?

Of course, such tactics run the risk of being penalised, but Ireland are usually more effective at their subtle deployment. Another example of the little details that were off the mark against Wales.

Restart Source: RBS Six Nations

Perhaps the most jarring example of Ireland’s off-day in the kicking stakes was the above restart after Wales had gone 9-0 ahead. It’s an uncharacteristic error from a man we’ve come to expect almost flawless performances from and at a costly time.

Sexton is just a hint off with the power on the restart and it flies into touch to provide Wales with the scrum from which they launch that garryowen for Roberts to regather over Kearney.

As with Murray’s loss of the aerial battle against Halfpenny we looked at earlier, this is not the kind of dominant action we’d seen from Sexton during Ireland’s 10-game winning streak.

Every player in the world makes mistakes, but the error count was high from Ireland’s halfback pairing against Wales when compared to their usual world-class performance levels.

Microcosm

Though Ireland did win a handful of aerial duels throughout the game, the Welsh could certainly point to superiority in both fielding and kicking on Saturday afternoon.

Rob Kearney with Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts The Welsh efforts under the high ball were a major factor in their success. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their hunger to gather kicks was as notable as their work rate in defence later in the game, and this early period in which they built a 12-0 lead serves as a microcosm of the entire 80 minutes at the Millennium Stadium.

Ireland were off key in areas they usually excel – their halfbacks making uncharacteristic errors, their use of possession not being successful, and the early concession of a high number of penalties.

Schmidt’s men left themselves in a position they haven’t been in too often, although it was encouraging that they clawed their way back into the game and ensured it was a contest right up until Barnes’ final scrum penalty.

Ireland met a Wales side which pushed its performance levels to a recent peak on a day they struggled to hit their own, never more obviously than in the opening 14 minutes.

A 12-0 lead in international rugby, particularly away from home, is bordering on the disastrous, and Ireland will have learned a timely lesson in that regard as the World Cup looms.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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