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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Brent Pope: Schmidt can use this defeat to benefit Ireland

Ireland's Jared Payne gets past Wales Jamie Roberts during the RBS 6 Nations match at the Millennium Stadium
Ireland's Jared Payne gets past Wales Jamie Roberts during the RBS 6 Nations match at the Millennium Stadium

When the television cameras panned to the Welsh dugout, you could see what this Welsh win meant to their coach Warren Gatland.

He punched the air in jubilation, and then walked away for some solitude, he had been waiting for this rematch for over a year, and the hour was his. All week, the usually outspoken ex-coach of Ireland had been strangely quiet, instead using what the Welsh public deemed as personal attacks on him by certain media scribes to circle the ‘Welsh wagons of support’.

His psychology worked. In the end, this game reminded me of the World Cup equivalent in 2011, where Gatland plotted Ireland’s downfall. Yesterday, Wales, despite coming close to drawing the match, deserved their victory; they had done their homework on Ireland’s lineout, aerial game and loose forwards.

Just like in 2011, the likes of Seán O’Brien were chopped down early before they could cross the gain-line, the Welsh employing both the chop tackle and fast-line speed to good effect.

Time after time, the Irish backs attempted to pass the ball back into the tight channels, but the Welsh were simply waiting. However, Ireland could have still snatched a most unlikely draw had referee Wayne Barnes officiated the game as he should have.

Despite having the more dominant scrum, even more dominant after the early injury to Samson Lee and then the failure of Gethin Jenkins to return to play after half-time, Barnes never allowed Ireland to scrum at all, giving Wales’s free-kicks at nearly every scrum restart. In the last minute it’s baffling to see where Barnes actually sprung the relieving and match-winning penalty from, so Joe Schmidt has every reason to feel aggrieved about that part of the game.

But in some ways that would be glossing over the cracks in Ireland’s performance too. Unfortunately, Paul O’Connell, who was magnificent in his 100th game, was the only one of Ireland’s key players to really stand-out in this game. Out-half Johnny Sexton had an off day and it seemed that the two week lay-off did not suit him. Sexton failed to control the game like he usually does, and on a couple of occasions drifted the ball out over the sideline just allowing Wales to play a lot of territory in Ireland’s half, especially in the first quarter.

At one stage in the first half, the ball hit Johnny Sexton’s chest when he was looking elsewhere, sadly it just summed up both his and Ireland’s day. Ireland had not chased a game this Championship, and it showed. A 12-point start to Wales was enough to see them home despite a better performance from the Irish in the second half.  As is his nature, Joe Schmidt will pour over the video nasties this morning to see where it went wrong – the areas of lineout, decision making on the field and telegraphed back play may be top of his agenda.

The Irish backline created enough scoring opportunities in this game but still lack that creative edge you need to win against the bigger nations.

On too many occasions the Irish midfield headed back into the tight traffic as their first option, when maybe a simple long pass would have resulted in a try.

The same applied when, after a series of short raids close to the Welsh line, the ball was eventually spilled by  Cian Healy. The problem was the number of Irish players screaming for the ball wider out, where the try was on. Unfortunately, the vision was not.

This loss is far from doom and gloom for Ireland. The team did not play particularly well, yet could still have salvaged a draw. This is a game of such small margins.

Will Joe Schmidt make any changes for Scotland? I think he has to look at a few things – the balance of the back row, with Ireland effectively still playing two number sixes, the centre partnership where I would like to see Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls at least have a chance at 13. Jared Payne is a fine player, but his running style is more loping than it is dynamic. Outside centres need to have 10 metres of electric pace which is all they need to get outside their opposite defender,

Fitzgerald has the feet and the pace. It is better for this wake-up call now than in a few months time. Some positives to take out of the ashes.

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