Although Warren Gatland’s 100th international as Wales Coach was not a happy one, suffering a 37-27 defeat by Ireland, his longitude means that his advice on winning Tests can be useful. On that note, when overseeing the Lions series draw with New Zealand last summer, Gatland noted that all Test matches are ultimately won up front.
This was a recurring theme in Round Three of the Six Nations, particularly with the games in Dublin and Edinburgh. It will be a concern for Ireland, yet again, that all three Welsh tries came from probes out wide. However, as long as Ireland lorded the breakdown and carried with intelligence, there was never going to be enough Welsh possession to swing the contest in Wales’ favour. In effect, then, a team that attempts to play the ball expansively without dominance up front will live and die by the sword if not enough possession is secured.
We see examples of this in Ireland’s game against Wales. Ireland’s rucking effort was much better last Saturday than against France. Players, generally speaking, were much earlier arriving at the ruck than in Paris. Consequently, ball security was much improved against Wales and, in turn, the quality of ball carrying was better as well because players were allowed an extra split second to pick out possible weak shoulders, deal with defensive line speed and give the backline more opportunities to implement training ground moves. As we can see, dominance up front sets off a positive chain of events that results in the margins of Test rugby being swung in favour of the team with the performing forwards pack.
The importance of dominance up front also held true for the game in Edinburgh last Saturday evening during Scotland’s thrilling win over England. It looks like England’s high-intensity scrum training sessions with Georgia prior to the game actually did the Red Rose more harm than good. The Englishmen were uncharacteristically passive in the contact area and subsequently slow to get off the ground post tackle.
Scotland do not have the biggest forwards pack by Test rugby standards and Wales ruthlessly exploited that in Round 1 to shut down the Scottish backline. However, once it became clear that England were not going to bully Townsend’s men, the Scotsmen used their license to play to full effect, with two of the Scottish scores coming from more than forty metres out. The sluggish nature of the English forwards’ play allowed Scotland to get quick ball off scrums, lineouts and rucks, causing the mismatches in defence that is very unlike an Eddie Jones’ team.
If anything can be learned from the two titanic clashes last Saturday, it is that they provide a template from which to base an assault on an Irish Six Nations’ Grand Slam. Wales and Scotland have both played expansive rugby when they were allowed to. The key thing is, as clichéd as it might sound, is to remove the platform those teams need to play that style of rugby. If Ireland can deny Scotland possession they need by carrying well, taking them through the phases and keeping their first phase ball at high speed, space will open up because of the sheer amount of tackling involved for their opponents and the reduced effectiveness of line speed. At that point, the halfbacks, centres and the wings.
Against England, a similar strategy will have to be used. As I have said before, Ireland have struggled to put width into to their defence. However, if Ireland can strip England of the ball in the manner described earlier deny England a set piece platform, the game could well suit Ireland. If the forwards do their job, England will not have the first phase ball they need to go wide. If that is the case, Ireland are well placed to soak up the pressure in their half and then see what they can do themselves with ball in hand.
As we can see, a lot of things need to go right if Ireland are to win a grand slam. Such are the fine margins at this level, that one breakdown poach or one bad carry could swing the momentum, as Ireland learned to their cost in Paris. However, this game plan forms the basis of what Ireland do when they play well and if the players can do that to the level that Joe Schmidt is demanding, we might be looking at a third 6 nations in five years.
Conor Lynott – Sports Editor