big issues

6 talking points after Ireland suffer defeat to Warren Gatland's Wales

The lineout failings, the Welsh defence, Wayne Barnes and an attack that couldn’t get over the line.

Murray Kinsella reports from the Millennium Stadium

IRELAND WERE BEATEN 23-16 by Wales in Cardiff to end their Grand Slam hopes. Read our full match report here.

An absorbing contest

Before we turn to any specifics, it has to be said that this was the game of the championship so far in terms of sheer entertainment. Perhaps the rugby was not as open as other fixtures, but the second half had everything.

Paul O'Connell dejected Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The momentum flowed back and forth between the teams, constantly engaging the attention of those in the Millennium Stadium and watching on television. That came after a first-half that had struggled for flow, as Wayne Barnes was whistled at will.

There were errors among the quality of course, but this fixture shone as a contest. When Wales went to 20-9, we could have been forgiven for thinking that was that, but Ireland found the energy to ensure the game went down to the very final act.

Wales’ defensive effort

The 32-phase passage just after the 50-minute mark was simply remarkable. Ireland threw everything they had at Gatland’s men, varying between Conor Murray snipes, one-off runners close to rucks and passes to Johnny Sexton slightly wider.

But Wales simply did not buckle. They tackled legs accurately, driving into the collisions with utter willingness and slammed Irishmen behind the gainline repeatedly. Even when Liam Williams conceded a breakdown penalty, they regathered and worked hard again.

That effort was symbolic of Wales’ work rate throughout in defence, as they limited Ireland to just a handful of breaks. Two defenders dropped deep to cover the backfield [usually Biggar and Halfpenny], while the rest of the Welshmen filled a strong defensive line.

Turnover contests were intermittent and very often effective, all combining to ensure that Ireland’s attacking efforts ultimately produced only one penalty try.

The lineout

Ireland will point to their lineout failings as a big factor in losing this game, as they gave up crucial possession at the set-piece on at least three notable occasions.

Devin Toner with Sam Warburton in the line-out Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There was a damaging Sam Warburton theft in front of Devin Toner at the tail just after the 20-minute mark after Ireland kicked themselves to within five metres from a penalty. Scott Williams’ try stemmed from a stolen Ireland lineout too, a huge combined effect.

Even in the dying minutes, Ireland had a ball picked off in front of O’Connell by Luke Charteris, and though they got a second bite at a potentially game-drawing maul, these were psychological fillips for the Welsh.

Ireland’s lineout, such a major strength under John Plumtree last season, failed in the most important game of the championship. Forwards coach Simon Easterby and lineout leader O’Connell might lose sleep over this one.

Wayne Barnes

We’re normally loath to dwell too much on the performance of referees, but Barnes is certainly in the limelight after this game. There is no sense that the Englishman cost Ireland the game, and any such suggestion is unfair.

However, there were a number of debatable calls made by Barnes, the scrum penalty that eventually allowed Wales to kick their drop goal through Dan Biggar being just one of them. Even at the death, the scrum penalty against Ireland was difficult to understand.

The first half was particularly frustrating for both teams, as they struggled to understand Barnes’ interpretation of the breakdown, though it must be said that there was at least consistency in the referee’s decision-making.

There are definitely areas of his performance that Ireland can pick at, but Barnes was not the decisive factor in this game.

Attack can’t get over the line

We expected Ireland’s attack to flourish in this game, and while they did look dangerous on a number of occasions [two Paul O'Connell linebreaks included], there simply wasn’t the final cutting edge when they got close.

Luke Charteris and Paul O'Connell O'Connell makes a bust. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

A knock-on over the line by Cian Healy with a huge overlap on the right will rankle most of all in the video review, and Ireland were taught something of a lesson by Wales’ clinical finishing of their major 22 visit by Scott Williams.

Johnny Sexton was not as razor sharp as we have come to expect, spilling two balls around the midfield area, although he did add incision at times. Ireland appeared focused on breaking Wales close to the rucks, attempting a dummy loop play into that area three times, but always being met by tacklers.

In a game where their kicking game was not as successful as it has been, Ireland will rue not ending territorially dominant passages with crucial scores.

Aerial battle

We’ve come to expect Ireland to dominate the skies under kicks, but Wales were more than a match for them. An early regather of his own garryowen by Leigh Halfpenny over Conor Murray was emblematic of the Welsh effort, while Liam Williams competed with gusto too.

As with Ireland’s best aerial display, Wales’ success was not based simply on the catchers, however. The kicking of Dan Bigger and Rhys Webb allowed their teammates to arrive under the ball at the ideal pace, beating Irishmen in the air on a number of occasions.

Warren Gatland must get credit for encouraging his players to go up against Ireland in this area, one of many where Wales came off better.

Here’s how we rated Ireland in the heart-stopping defeat to Wales

Ireland’s Grand Slam dream ended by ferocious Wales win in Cardiff

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