Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Tyrone Howe: End of the world, but no complaints

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 08: Dejeceted Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland walks off the pitch following his team's 22-10 defeat during quarter final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Ireland v Wales at Wellington Regional Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The dream is over, our hopes dashed and all the Star Trek references I was planning — boldly going where no other Irish team has gone before etc — will have to be put on ice for another four years.

Yet, we cannot have too many complaints. It was a proper contest, a real Test match, full of attitude and intensity and we were simply beaten by a better side on the day.

Actually, the way Wales played, it didn’t feel like it was ‘on the day’ — honestly, Wales played so well, it felt more like ‘any day.’ They were superior in almost every facet of the game.

On paper it was scripted to be a cracking game. I believed, based on past performances, that Wales only knew one way to play — attack, attack, attack.

The opening few minutes bore this out, as Wales rampaged through phase after phase, Jamie Roberts (pictured) catch of the high ball being the key contributor in the movement that ultimately contributed to Shane Williams’ opening score.

It was a breathtaking start because of the lung-busting pace, movement of the ball, high level of skill and ambition.

This was a multi-faceted performance from Warren Gatland’s men, who displayed power, fitness, skill and self-belief.

You could place the word ‘total’ before all of those terms and it would not look out of place.

Defensively, the Welsh pack dealt superbly with Ireland’s main ball-carriers. Much has been made of the ‘choke tackle’ that Ireland had employed to great effect against Australia and Italy.

The Welsh approach was much more basic and for me, restored faith in the fact that some of the old ways are still effective.

They scythed down the main targets, Healy, Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip. Having taken out Irish attackers by the roots, the Welsh backrow was back on its feet in the defensive line before Ireland could recycle the ball.

The benefits of a simple clean tackle were twofold. Firstly, there was less opportunity for the Welsh tackler to be sucked into the breakdown. Secondly, there was minimal requirement for additional players to be committed to that same breakdown.

Wales just backed themselves in defence — again and again, Ireland ran into an almost full defensive line, a red wall of bodies utterly committed to each other and their gameplan.

Last week I stated that Ireland would have to take on Wales’ forwards and try to stifle their talented backline.

Ireland’s senior players clearly thought that they would win that battle, hence the early decision to kick for the corner rather than taking chances of three points.

This was a feature of the August warm-up games — on occasions, the opportunity for points was spurned only for the chance to be missed.

For the conversion of Keith Earls’ try later in the game, Ronan O’Gara kicked a corker from the touchline. In the opening five or 10 minutes, 7-0 down, having had little possession and in the Welsh 22 for the first time, Ireland needed to come away with something. I was surprised, once again, at the decision not to go for the posts.

By half-time, Wales had made twice the number of tackles as Ireland.

Could they keep up this level of intensity in defence? If Ireland could keep the ball, continue to go through the phases, over 80 minutes, surely they would be able finally to break through?

Above all, Ireland needed to score first and they duly did. With 45 minutes on the clock, it was ten points apiece.

Yet, it says much about Wales’ fitness and self-belief that they refused to be denied.

Subsequent tries came directly from Irish mistakes: an uncharacteristic lineout error and then a turnover in possession.

Human error, yes, but a reaction to enormous pressure. Wales took full advantage and never looked back.

They look like the real deal and while their backs took the tries, their forwards won the match. A similar performance will push all the remaining teams.

I fancy Sam Warburton and his team to overcome France. The cracks within their squad are substantial, but England played so poorly that confidence was allowed to temporarily return.

The challenge for Wales is to hang in there long enough to ensure that those cracks and divisions reappear.

I also fancy Australia to beat New Zealand. Their recent record against the All Blacks is excellent, both in the Super 15 and TriNations.

This All Black side is reeling from injuries and now on its third choice outhalf.

Many, myself included, considered this to be the potential final and it should be 80 minutes to savour.

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