We’re back! And so is Warren Gatland! The 2023 edition of the Six Nations kicks off with a new era starting for Wales: the second Gatland era, as he returns to replace Wayne Pivac. And as far as first Tests go, they don’t come much harder than an Ireland team building towards what they are hoping to be their most successful World Cup campaign.
And it took just a minute before a clever kick by James Lowe helped give Ireland possession 5 metres from the Welsh line, and after phases of pressure, Caelan Doris forced his way over for the early try. It was all Ireland in the early stages as Wales struggled to find an answer, and the visitors made it 2 tries from 2 visits to the 22 as James Ryan drove his way over. After 12 minutes of dominance, what appeared to be a knock-on from Tomas Francis while attempting a tackle on Jonathan Sexton led to the ball going to ground, and as Wales kicked the loose ball on, Hugo Keenan just beat Rio Dyer back to the ball but was forced to take the ball over his own line, and Wales were able to convert their first moment of territory into a simple penalty for Dan Biggar, though Sexton soon kicked a penalty in reply as the Welsh defence continued to give away penalties. As the game reached the end of the first quarter, Wales finally started putting some phases together in the Irish half, but James Lowe read Dan Biggar’s pass to Liam Williams and snatched it to go in from the edge of his own 22 untouched. A timely counterruck on the restart from Adam Beard gave the Welsh a scrum in the Welsh 22, and when Joe Hawkins’ first phase crash ball ended just short of the line, Dan Biggar found himself just snagged by Garry Ringrose as he looked for the gap out wide and he was pinged for holding on. Another penalty against Biggar allowed Ireland to move deep into the Welsh half, and then another from Faletau allowed Sexton the simplest of kicks to stretch the lead to 24 points. As the penalties against the Welsh continued, a strong carry from Dan Sheehan was stopped just short of the line, but Doris was unable to keep hold of the ball as Kew Owens put in a timely hit just short of the line. A couple of penalties allowed the hosts to go the length of the pitch, and after George North crashed up to the line, Jac Morgan was held up on the line by Andrew Porter for a 3-27.
Wales needed a massive improvement after the break and certainly started brighter, with patience on the Irish line seeing Dan Biggar send Liam Williams over for a try. The Welsh were looking much better and forcing some penalties from a shaken Irish team, but errors continued to hit them at the crucial moments: lineouts being lost, not going straight or being won cleanly; knock-ons deep in the Irish 22; a floated pass from Tipuric too high for Rio Dyer. And things got even worse for Wales as Liam Williams was yellow carded for a high tackle on Sexton just after the hour mark. And the man advantage eventually resulted in the bonus point for Ireland as Josh van der Flier was sent over beneath the posts, while Mack Hansen was denied a try in the corner with the final play of the game as a bouncing ball and covering Alex Cuthbert conspired to thwart him, resulting in a final score of 10-34.
Boy has Gats got a task on his hands! And the one man he no longer has with him is Shaun Edwards, who not just made the Welsh defence super-reliable, but also super well-disciplined. Wales’ discipline was awful in this match, almost reaching double figures by half time. And what made it worse was how avoidable most of the penalties were, as established professionals like Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric were continually pinged as they tried to illegally slow down the Irish breakdowns, while there were also multiple occasions that the defensive line was setting up in an offside position in the Irish half.
It was the same under Wayne Pivac, and it needs to be changed as soon as possible if Wales want to turn things around, as this match just highlighted how penalties just take the pressure off the opposition and give then easy territory or an easy way to rack up a score.
The big question is whether Gatland and co can turn this around in time with the World Cup looming.
The cliché with Ireland is that they build wonderfully and look incredible a year out from the World Cup, only to find that they have peaked too early and to have a disappointing World Cup.
With that in mind, the complete difference in the Irish performance of the first half and the third quarter is a little worrying. It’s as if the team thought they had done enough in the first half to win the game without trying after the break. The intensity was gone, and it was replaced with some stupid penalties, such as Andrew Porter gifting Wales with a penalty restart for diving on Liam Williams after his try. Wales were suddenly making ground with their carries and finding gaps out wide, and Ireland can also consider themselves lucky that Rio Dyer was stopped after Sexton’s lazy crosskick in his own half fell straight into his arms.
The Irish team has built so well through this cycle and managed so many historic moments, it feels like this second half will have just been a blip. But Andy Farrell and co need to make sure the team realise how lucky they were to get away with such a poor half of rugby and put a focus on the importance of maintaining their high standards for the full 80 minutes.
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