Round 1 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Cardiff with Wales hosting Ireland at the Principality Stadium. Neither team had a 2020 campaign to be proud of, but it was the Welsh who had the better start, with Leigh Halfpenny kicking an early penalty after Peter O’Mahony was caught entering a ruck from the side. O’Mahony clearly needs to work on his ruck entry, as he was penalised again 10 minutes later for tucking in the arm and making contact with the head of Tomas Francis, leaving Wayne Barnes with no option other than to send him off. The Welsh were buoyed by the man advantage and soon doubled their lead after Jonathan Sexton was penalised for a high tackle on Johnny Williams. They let the Irish claw themselves back into the game however, and Sexton kicked 2 penalties to bring everything level. Then with just a few minutes left in the half, Robbie Henshaw ran a reverse and found a gap in the Welsh defensive line to break into the 22 before offloading to Josh van der Flier. The flanker was stopped just short, but a solid clean-out from the Irish allowed Tadhg Beirne to pick from the base and cross for the opening try, which Sexton converted for a 6-13 halftime lead.
The Welsh came out looking to play a bit more positive rugby after the break, and when they won a loose ball deep in the Irish half, Josh Navidi picked up from the base of the ruck and offloaded to outside centre George North, who used his support me to dummy his way past James Lowe to score in the corner, Halfpenny missing the conversion. 10 minutes later, wales found themselves in a similar position, and some soft hands under pressure from Halfpenny released Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing, who quickly got up to speed and dived in for the go-ahead try under pressure from Tadhg Furlong. Halfpenny added the conversion and a further 3 points just a few minutes later when Tadhg Beirne was harshly adjudged to have entered a ruck from the side. However the Irish hit back and with Jonathan Sexton off the pitch, Billy Burns kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to 5 points. The clock entered the red with Ireland in possession and making their way downfield, eventually winning an 84ᵗʰ minute penalty. Billy Burns went for the corner but overcooked his kick on a tight angle and the ball went out of play over the dead ball line, securing a 21-16 victory for Wales.
Wales should consider themselves very lucky to have won this game despite having a man advantage for over an hour of the game, because they played this game completely wrong.
With Ireland going down to 14 men so early in the match Wales should have been looking to keep the ball in hand as much as possible, probing along the defensive line to find the gap that will inevitably appear due to the 1-man advantage, whether it is by creating a hole in the middle or catching the defensive line too narrow to create space out wide for Rees-Zammit. In doing this, not only would it have created chances, but it would have also tired the Irish out, creating even more gaps to exploit as the game wore on.
Instead, Wales entered into a kicking duel with the Irish that on the whole they lost, while the Irish would then utilise their own possession and territory to work the Welsh defence as Wales should have been doing to them. It was only a couple of moments in the second half when Wales really played this right – and they finished both of these occasions with tries!
At the end of the day, a win is a win, but for me there are still a lot of questions about the way Wayne Pivac has this team playing.
Ireland have such strength in depth throughout this squad, with almost all of the 15 men starting all able to be replaced by someone of similar quality. However, there are 2 key positions where the Irish are struggling to do this: in the half backs.
Though both Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are in the twilight of their careers and hold the team back against top quality opponents, they are still given all the minutes by Andy Farrell, exactly as was the case under Joe Schmidt. Meanwhile, players in the form of their lives are lucky to make it onto the bench and get just a handful of minutes, usually once the result is secured. If they’re lucky, they may get a start against a team like Italy, but usually in a team so heavily changed that they build no chemistry with the first team players. This lack of chemistry with the first team and lack of minutes in key international matches leads to performances like today, where Billy Burns is brought on with just 10 minutes left and expected to change his natural game to fit into the scheme that has been made to get the best out of Sexton, and leads to extra pressure on their shoulders in situations like today’s final kick to touch, where they know they must be inch-perfect in order to to even stand a chance of being given minutes over the incumbents, and that extra pressure in an unfamiliar situation leads to mistakes.
At some point, Sexton and Murray will be unavailable, either through injuries or retirement. When that moment comes, Andy Farrell may regret having not given the players just below them in the depth chart more time with the first team.
Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw were the standout players from this game and were very unlucky that being n the losing side meant they were not considered for Man of the Match, while CJ Stander looked more mobile than last season without losing any of his power. For wales, Alun Wyn Jones put in a true captain’s performance, carrying hard and repeatedly leaving Irish bodies crumpled on the ground following his tackles.
Arguably the biggest loser from this weekend will be Peter O’Mahony, whose red card just highlighted once again that he is not the player he was a few years ago due to the changed interpretations at the breakdown, while larger players like Beirne and Iain Henderson’s ability to cover the back row as well as lock will make them look more attractive against the massive Springbok packs. Similarly, Johnny Williams has a potential to be a bolter for the squad but needs the minutes at international level, so a failed HIA would have been the last thing he wanted, and he will be hoping that he is fit to face Sotland next weekend.