All the fears and misgivings of those following Welsh rugby were fully realised in the first half against Ireland in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
The opening 6 Nations 2013 fixture started with a flourish, but it wasn’t one that those in red wanted to see. Ireland came out firing and the sheer ferocity in which they approached the contact area seemed to have the Welsh men floored. Slick passing and quick hands saw Ireland work the ball across the pitch to put Zebo through for a try, although Welsh wing Cuthbert was guilty of ball watching.
Wales whenever they managed to get hold of the ball were guilty of falling back on old tactics of running too upright into contact, something the Irish defence managed to smother with ease. Time and again Wales were turned over and they were constantly put under pressure.
The pressure soon told when Welsh fly half Dan Biggar looked to put in a clearance kick that was charged down by Rory Best. A re-gather and a couple of passes out wide, including a wayward one from Heaslip which was rescued beautifully by a bit of audacious footwork and skill from wing Zebo, saw Ireland recyle the ball quickly enough for prop Cian Healy to go crashing over.
Ill-discipline was playing its part as well as Ireland extended their lead further through the precise boot of Sexton, with Wales only managing to claw three points back in return, as they eagerly sought the tunnel at half time, trailing 23-3.
The second half saw the match get even worse for Wales. Ireland starting strongly again were soon battering away at the Welsh line. New cap Coombs, having had a fairly solid first half, made the error of trying to clear a ruck out on his own line. The ever present Brian O’Driscoll spotted the gap he left and he went crashing over. Ireland were now leading 30-3 and with how the match had been going, there were real fears that the score line could get embarrassing for Wales.
It took shorter than expected for Wales to finally start to put in some sort of fight back. Finally managing to retain possession long enough to work their way into Irish territory, a great line from wing Cuthbert saw him picking off a decisive Biggar pass to go crashing over. All of a sudden the Welsh tails were up, passes that in the first half that had failed to go to hand were suddenly sticking.
Ireland had no option but to defend like demons. On a few occasions their defence went beyond legality and Poite rightfully yellow carded Rory Best for infringing at the breakdown, with Connor Murray following him ten minutes later.
It took just one minute after Ireland were first down to 14 men for Wales to finally spot a gap in their defensive line. Phase after phase they hammered away at the Irish defence, before finally managing to get one of their back moves working to send Leigh Halfpenny over in the corner.
Nearly the whole of the final quarter was played in Ireland’s half. The possession and territory stats, so largely in Ireland’s favour in the first half were turned on their head. The visitors’ tackle count sky rocketed as they gave their all to keep the men in red at bay.
Wales to their credit failed to give up hope, and when replacement prop Craig Mitchell crashed over from short range with five minutes to go, there was still a glimmer of hope that Wales would pull of the almightiest of comebacks.
It wasn’t to be however as wayward passing and further butchering of overlaps saw Wales waste their chances. Ireland slowly but surely in the final few minutes managed to wrestle back a small amount of possession to keep Wales playing rugby in the wrong areas of the pitch.
It was with relief the men in green heard the final whistle. A sublime first half display and some tenacious defence in the second half saw the big lead they had built in the first 45 minutes of the game enough to see them home the victors.
Wales on the other hand will be hoping to block out memories of what was a disastrous first half. Stagnant ball, little attacking poise and passivity in defence is something they will have to improve on massively if they are to have any chance of gaining a victory in this year’s tournament. The positives they displayed in the second half is something for Welsh fans to cling on to, but there is no doubting there needs to be a vast improvement in their overall standard of play.
Ireland will come away from Wales relieved to have seen the game out as winners. They will be disappointed at having conceded so much possession in the second half after looking so assured in the first, yet if they can bring their attack and execution of the first 45 minutes to the rest of their games, there’s no doubting they are going to be hard for any side to beat.
Full time score: Wales 22 – 30 Ireland.
Referee: Romain Poite
Wales: 15-Leigh Halfpenny, 14-Alex Cuthbert, 13-Jonathan Davies, 12-Jamie Roberts, 11-George North, 10-Dan Biggar, 9-Mike Phillips; 1-Gethin Jenkins, 2-Matthew Rees, 3-Adam Jones, 4-Andrew Coombs, 5-Ian Evans, 6-Aaron Shingler, 7-Sam Warburton (captain), 8-Toby Faletau.
Replacements: 16-Ken Owens (for Rees 52), 17-Paul James (for Jenkins, 67), 18-Craig Mitchell (for Jones, 73), 19-Olly Kohn (for Evans, 73), 20-Justin Tipuric (for Shingler, 43), 21-Lloyd Williams (for Phillips, 63), 22-James Hook (for Biggar, 73), 23-Scott Williams
Ireland: 15-Rob Kearney; 14-Craig Gilroy, 13-Brian O’Driscoll, 12-Gordon D’Arcy, 11-Simon Zebo; 10-Jonathan Sexton, 9-Conor Murray; , 1-Cian Healy, 2-Rory Best, 3-Mike Ross, 4-Mike McCarthy, 5-Donnacha Ryan, 6-Peter O’Mahony, 7-Sean O’Brien, 8-Jamie Heaslip (captain).
Replacements: 16-Sean Cronin, 17-David Kilcoyne (for Healy, 73), 18-Declan Fitzpatrick (for Ross, 69), 19-Donncha O’Callaghan, 20-Chris Henry (for O’Mahony, 52), 21-Eoin Reddan (for Zebo, 80), 22-Ronan O’Gara, 23-Keith Earls (for D’Arcy, 43).