Rugby World Cup: Ireland can deliver killer blow
“This is cup rugby.”
A phrase which has been used time and again by the Irish squad at this tournament but, rather than merely constituting a statement of the obvious, it is a psychological statement of intent when it comes to World Cup progression.
‘Cup rugby’ is a mind-set based on pragmatism. It does not mean adopting conservative tactics ahead of expansion but it does mean choosing your moment — as Ireland did last weekend in the second-half after grinding it out with the Italians in the first.
It requires solid set-pieces, secure defence, intensity in contact and territory-based football with points steadily accumulated when presented and the possibility of opening up when the game wears on and bodies tire — again, a lot like last weekend’s win over Italy.
Tomorrow's forecast is for the usual Wellington combination of wind and showers and Ireland with former Hurricanes scrum coach Greg Feek explaining the vagaries of the breeze in the ‘Cake Tin’ which tends to swirl about with the result that “the ball does not always go where you intend to kick it”.
In out-half Ronan O’Gara, Ireland have a man well used to controlling matches in these circumstances and, on the cup rugby theme, Ireland have a significant advantage personnel-wise.
Eleven of their starting 15 have won Heineken Cups while scrum-half Conor Murray has won the Magners League on a semi-final and final, knock-out basis. Wales cannot draw on any comparable experience.
They can point to two Grand Slams over the last six years but there has been a significant turnover in bodies since even that 2008 triumph. What Wales do have is verve and vigour. They are a young side and, consequently, play with a fearlessness that can be hard to contain.
Of the Irish 15, only Donncha O’Callaghan, Murray, O’Gara and Keith Earls have not had any recent niggle, or more serious injury, to contend with and one wonders at the readiness of hooker Rory Best for battle after what looked to be a heavy knock last weekend.
Ireland are banking on careful management of the likes of Stephen Ferris and Paul O’Connell in training allowing them to explode on match day and a greater level of overall nous to see them home; Wales will be looking to run the Irish off the park.
There will be a vast array of European talent on show — seven Welsh Lions and 10 Irish — and this quarter-final has the potential to be the pick of the bunch.
But for all the individual skills contained in both sides, you suspect it will be the collective cup rugby mentality that will decide who progresses to the last four.
BLANKET OF EIGHT
Another World Cup win-or-go-home encounter, another decisive scrum challenge for the Irish eight.
Although Gethin Jenkins was always likely to get the nod on the loose-head side for Wales, you get the impression that Irish tight-head Mike Ross prefers it that way.
Jenkins is a fantastic player and set the standard for Cian Healy to emulate in his play around the park but at scrum-time he carries less of a threat than Paul James.
Ross can go after Jenkins in a manner that would be likely to bring less success against the doughty James, who will be remembered as the scourge of Munster’s Heineken Cup aspirations last season.
Adam Jones will give Healy a stern examination on the far side and the injury to Rory Best has serious implications for the Irish scrummaging effort. James is available to bolster the Welsh effort off the bench but if Ross can get some joy against Jenkins early on it could set Ireland on their way.
KISS ON THE HIPS
Both defences have been impressive thus far, each conceding a miserly 34 points from four pool matches.
Ireland’s tactic of holding attackers up to turn the tackle into a maul and gain the scrum put-in is no longer a secret but that does not render it any less effective, given the extra time they have had under defence guru Les Kiss to perfect its execution.
Tomorrow, they are faced with an attack that will ask questions that have not been posed in the other key matches against Australia and Italy but if they can smother the opposition as effectively as they managed on those occasions (when Ireland managed try shut-outs) then they will induce mistakes and turnovers. Wales will produce line-breaks but Ireland’s scramble defence is another strength in their make-up, while Conor Murray will be seeking to replicate his shackling of Sergio Parisse against the impressive Toby Faletau.
Under Shaun Edwards, Wales will be well drilled in defence also but you still get the impression that Ireland have some backline moves up their sleeves and it may take only one to be run off successfully for this game to be decided.
APPROACHING THE BENCH
Rugby in the modern era is very much a 22-man game and this is an area where the Welsh could carry an advantage.
In Paul James, Ryan Jones, Scott Williams and, in particular, James Hook, Warren Gatland has genuine game-changers to call upon when required. James is someone who can strengthen the scrum, on either side but especially at loose-head, while Jones can deem himself unlucky to be omitted for the durable but less dynamic Dan Lydiate in the back-row. Williams has been catching the eye at this tournament and, like Ireland’s Andrew Trimble, brings pace, power and direct running to the equation. But it is Hook who is the real worry for Ireland. He can slot in at out-half, midfield or full-back with the capacity to produce a decisive play from each of those positions. With this game likely to be still in the balance in the final quarter, both sides have the personnel to mix it up, but Gatland would appear to have more bullets to fire.
A win for Wales would not constitute a surprise given the way they have been performing so far and it would be hard to argue the contention that they have shown more potency in attack.
The caveat is that their last two outings have been 81-7 and 66-0 romps against Namibia and Fiji respectively, hardly girding Gatland’s men for the realities of knock-out battle the way Ireland’s physical clash with the Italians has.
Wales will run out tomorrow, though, full of confidence fresh from their union issuing a ‘hands off’ directive to New Zealand on their coach Warren Gatland.
Meanwhile, Declan Kidney has gone about his business as unobtrusively as ever and with a coach characterised by pioneering achievement and a clutch of players knowing this is their last shot at World Cup achievement, Ireland can deliver the knock-out blow.