I don't get many opportunities to tell the public I told you so, but darn it I TOLD YOU SO! We released an article earlier this week, pushing the punditry sphere to stop discounting Wales and acting as if they are dead set for that 5th position. A year older, a year wiser and all that, Wales are never a team you should underestimate; even Gatland has won championships with squads far thinner than this. Pivac was under a ton of pressure going into this tournament, pressure that we hadn't seen at this level of Welsh Rugby in over a decade. So, how did they get on?
Discipline... Or lack there of it?
The majority of the write-ups on the England match were based around England's lack of discipline and how it was onset from a lack of fitness and game readiness. However, when you read a lot of the reviews on this match, Ireland are suddenly hard done by? No, not a chance. O'Mahony's challenge is a clear red arm, leading with the shoulder and elbow to the head of a downed opponent, it's a red card regardless of the year. He does have a history of living life on the edge and being a little too aggressive, but this just seemed like a moment of madness. You cannot discourage another teams performance for beating 14 men, when the player is rightfully sent off; discipline wins games. Otherwise, both sides seemed to struggle at the breakdown and though Barnes had a good game overall, his interpretation of the breakdown did confuse both back rows. Whether it was telling Faletau that he was the second man when he was clearly the first into the breakdown, or telling van der Flier that he didn't enter the tackle zone when pinching the ball in front of the posts, it just didn't seem to add up. However, the silly high tackles, which were predominantly being executed by the Irish backline, kept the game from feeling particularly fluid.
George North's Turnaround
North has been a chalk and cheese player across the Rugby community over the last two/three seasons. He's had to deal with some horrendous, repeat injuries and his lack of consistent game time did begin to knock his confidence. He looked like a player who didn't back their own physicality. He dropped off of tackles, remained anonymous out on his wing and looked like he had lost his pace. However, at thirteen in this game, North looked back to his best. Dominant in the collision, inventive with his offloads, aggressive in the tackle area and quick out of the blocks, North opened holes in that Irish backline that were difficult to cover. It eventually led to a fantastic finish by Louis Rees Zammit in the corner, a try that wouldn't have happened without North's probing runs and offloads. Despite an accidental, but terribly nasty gouge early in the second half, North soldiered through and got better and better as the game went on.
Both sides went through the ringer at half-back in this game. Tomos Williams looked sharp and hungry, making tidy little breaks around the fringes and supplying an excellent service to Biggar, but he suffered a hamstring injury fairly early on, putting the kibosh on Wales' frenetic attack. His replacement Davies looked visibly slower and made some bonkers decisions in the final twenty when Wales were trying to close out the game. Biggar was largely anonymous, kicking fairly well but failing to organise a cohesive attacking platform... It really was hit and miss for the men in red. Ireland on the other hand, it just feels like the same old story. Murray had some glimpses of match intelligence, creating little breaks around the fringes and kicking well when called upon, but overall he did look a bit too sluggish for an Irish side who were largely on the front foot. Sexton also had a tough showing, putting in a silly high tackle, looking frustrated after a couple of early calls and ultimately getting injured again towards the end of the game. I hate to be that person, but I don't know how Ireland can build a game plan off of a 10 who is constantly injured and missing the final third of each game. Burns then came on and had an unfortunate howler with the final kick of the game, blowing out the Irish comeback chances. I don't know where the solution is there, but you have to think Carbery, when fit, has to be immediately thrown in to start and a change at scrum half would be preferred moving forwards.
Ireland's Centre Combination
Ringrose, and in particular, Henshaw look like certified stars in that Irish backline. Neither player put a foot wrong all game and they have the work ethic of two extra opensides. Henshaw carried hard and effectively, popped up in the breakdown to add his considerable bulk, and pummeled that Biggar channel really efficiently. Ringrose had a couple of half breaks on the outside, using his agility and turn of pace to catch North and Williams a little static on a couple of occasions. I think they were both let down a little by a lack of quick service from the half-backs and a lack of direction out on the wings; Lowe covered and kicked well, but didn't offer much in the attacking third and Keith Earls looked uncharacteristically flustered.
George North - As mentioned earlier, North looks back to his best and if he can keep this form, he could be the key attacking element that been missing in this Welsh side for the best part of two years.
CJ Stander - I could put him this little list just for that carry against Faletau alone! He put in a real shift around the park and made ground with each carry.
Leigh Halfpenny - Cannot fault his performance on the day, safe pair of hands in the air, kicked well and knocked over some difficult conversions.
Louis Rees Zammit - For a young guy to have such a strong finishing ability is frightening! Didn't get much ball out wide, but when given the opportunity, he has the gas to make ground even on an oppositions head start.
Dan Biggar - Bit harsh to include him here because he didn't necessarily do much wrong, but he did go missing during some key exchanges around the mid-way mark.
Ken Owens - Not a bad day at the office by any means, but his lineout throwing nearly cost Wales the game. Every time they had possession deep in enemy territory, his skewy throwing would leave them chasing kicks 50 metres behind them.
Peter O'Mahony - Looked like a real disruptive menace in the first 10 minutes, but that red card was thoroughly deserved. On a smaller man than Francis (which let's face it, there are many of them) he could have caused real damage.
Billy Burns - Again, a little harsh including him here, but that missed kick and lapse in concentration might have cost Ireland the tournament. Hindsight is wonderful thing...
Keith Earls - Just didn't look at the races in this game. Dropped balls, wayward passing and a couple of silly penalties led to a performance to forget.