The entire tournament led to this moment: Wales taking on the Irish at the Principality Stadium with not just the tournament but also the Grand Slam on the line. A home victory would earn Wales the Grand Slam, whereas a victory for the Irish would see England win the title provided they beat Scotland. Unfortunately for Ireland and England fans, Hadleigh Parkes crossed the line in the second minute and Wales didn’t look back from there with 20 points from the boot of Gareth Anscombe seeing them go 25-0 up. Ireland looked set to be nilled but Jordan Lamour’s try on the final play of the game and Jack Carty’s conversion saw them come away with a slightly more respectable 25-7 score.
This was an incredible performance from Wales! The nerve to go for a chip deep in the Irish 22 and take advantage of Rob Kearney’s wide positioning showed Anscombe’s confidence at 10 and he reacted well to his early shift to 15 following George North’s injury. Dan Biggar ran the game well following his early introduction and having Anscombe on the pitch as well gave them the extra playmaking ability to keep the Irish defence guessing. Coming into this game, Peter O’Mahony was in contention for my team of the tournament but he was invisible in this game, such was the quality of the Welsh support.
If anything, the defence was even more impressive. Though I would argue that the Irish attack was not at its best (more on that shortly), they were limited to just 2 chances of note, one of which was their try with the result already confirmed. A Johnny Sexton crosskick looked to have sent Jacob Stockdale away down the left wing, but Hadleigh Parkes quickly caught him and brought him down to end the attack. The choke tackle used to be an Irish speciality, but the Welsh made it their own this tournament and used it to great effect once again.
With the coaching staff set to leave following the World Cup, it looks like Wales could be hitting the form they will need to make a serious run in the tournament and send their coaches off on a high.
During Ireland’s success over the last couple of years, some of the standout players for them have been CJ Stander and halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. This year, none of them have been close to the player we know they can be.
Unfortunately, Joe Schmidt seemed very stuck in his ways this tournament and continued to rely on these players despite their drop in form. I was critical a few rounds ago about how long the halfbacks were kept on against Italy given the quality on the bench and this happened once again against Wales, with neither being replaced until the final 10 minutes with the victory already well beyond them. And yet despite this John Cooney and Jack Carty appeared to get the team functioning a little better – granted the Welsh may have taken their foot off the pedal slightly knowing they had won – and controlled the team on their way to the only points of the game. Stander as well also struggled to get Ireland on the front foot, generating just 9 metres from 14 carries over the 80 minutes. In comparison, Jack Conan took over at number 8 following Sean O’Brien’s replacement and made the same number of metres from just 6 carries, looking much more dangerous in attack.
Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight, but in this match and this year’s tournament in general they have been poor. If Joe Schmidt wants a chance of finishing his Ireland career by winning the World Cup, then he needs to start selecting players on form rather than relying on players who have been stars in the past but are now struggling.
Many teams will likely be jealous of Wale’s options at fly half, with both Anscombe and Biggar having impressed throughout the tournament. To have such quality options available, the question has often been which of them should be starting and who should be on the bench.
While Anscombe arguably brings more options to the overall attack, there have been questions over his place kicking, which has tested a lot this tournament with Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. Despite Dan Biggar being generally regarded as the better kicker, Anscombe was allowed to keep kicking duties following Biggar’s early arrival to the field this weekend and proved the faith in him well justified as he kicked a conversion and 6 penalties for a 100% kick success rate in this game.
While this not only suggests that he can hold the 10 shirt ahead of Biggar – who is an amazing player to bring off the bench – it also suggests that there may not need to be such a reliance on Leigh Halfpenny moving forward, which could open up extra options in the back 3 as it would allow the regular back 3 of this tournament (George North and Josh Adams on the wings, Liam Williams at centre) to continue playing together and building their chemistry as a group. If Halfpenny and these 3 players can keep themselves free of injury between now and the end of the season, it will be interesting to see who makes it into the back 3 for Wales’ next game.