Wales came out in top in the first round 2021 Six Nations match against Ireland at The Principality Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Though the game had some excitement, by virtue of the jeopardy of a tight scoreline, the play from both sides left a lot to be desired as the teams settled for an attritional battle up front. This led to 33 passing/handing errors and 22 penalties with the ball in play for 40 minutes and for nearly half of that time it was in one of the 245 rucks.
Wales (6) 21
TRY: George North, Louis Rees-Zammit
CON: Leigh Halfpenny
PEN: Leigh Halfpenny (3)
Ireland (13) 16
TRY: Tadhg Beirne
CON: Johnny Sexton
PEN: Johnny Sexton (2), Billy Burns
The game settled into a territorial battle early on and Wales made the most of the early exchanges with Leigh Halfpenny landing a penalty, 4 minutes in, to take a 3 – 0 lead.
Unfortunately, for the hosts, they lost the influential Dan Lydiate to injury 8 minutes later but the game looked to swing their way in the next 60 seconds when an overly aggressive, and needless, clear out by Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony saw the Munster stalwart red carded.
With a man advantage the Welsh tactics were clear. Let Ireland tire themselves out and take advantage of the extra space later in the game.
However, a huge effort, and a bit of a relaxation by Wales, saw Ireland dominate the rest of the half. Unfortunately, for the visitors, it didn’t see a reduction in contact or an effort to make the ball do a bit more work. Instead it led to the team upping their workrate to compensate for the missing player.
It didn’t help the Irish efforts that they got substantial reward by redoubling their efforts as Johnny Sexton leveled the score with penalties on the 28th and 34th minute and when a missed tackle saw Robbie Henshaw break from deep to Josh van der Flier racing towards the try line. Van der Flyer was hauled down just short but a quick recycle saw Tadhg Beirne dive over for the try. Sexton converted and Ireland had an unlikely but deserved 6 – 13 lead as the teams changed ends.
Ireland’s hard work was largely undone at the start of the second half with George North selling James Lowe a kipper on his way to the line for an unconverted try to take the score to 11 – 13.
Ireland compounded their problems by continuing to play their attritional game. The boot and the backs really needed to take on more of the ball moving duties and both were used sparingly as Ireland continued to take it on up front. So determined were Ireland to continue this physical battle that even when they found themselves in space they continued to look for physical contact rather than move the ball.
Wales just needed to be patient and they re-took the lead ten minutes later with Lowe giving, Welsh youngster, Louis Rees-Zammit enough space out wide to score in the corner. Halfpenny landed the difficult conversion and minutes later he knocked over his third penalty to take the score to 21 – 13 with 15 minutes remaining.
Wales again looked to relax, thinking the game was won, but Ireland’s strong bench ensured a rousing finish from the visitors. Billy Burns brought it back to a one score game after Ireland had worked a penalty close to the posts, with just under 10 minutes to go, but Wales looked to have rebuffed their efforts until the closing minute when they kicked away possession to give Ireland one last chance to build an attack.
Burn’s probably wishes that Wales had had the wherewithal to close the game out in normal time as Ireland worked one last chance to steal the game with a possible catch and drive. Unfortunately the chance never came, the Ulster player’s efforts to get the lineout close to the 5m line resulting in a sliced kick which brought the game to an end.
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Johnny Williams, Hallam Amos, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams, Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau. Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Will Rowlands, Josh Navidi, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Nick Tompkins.
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (c), Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Will Connors, Jamison Gibson-Park, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.
The modern game has worked really hard on physical presence, fitness and defence but unless you really enjoy the spectacle of big units smashing into each other, reloading and repeating, as happened 245 times in this game according to the AWS Stats, then the whole game was a bit of a bore. There were only 8 offloads in the whole game.
Ireland’s mindset was typified to me by O’Mahony’s red card and a play by CJ Stander where finding himself in space with trailing runners he opted to take the physical challenge of smashing into Taulupe Faletau. It’s only a coincidence that both were Munster men but both were clear examples of a team sent out with a game plan of exerting physical dominance above all else.