Wales defy critics to deliver Ireland win

The backlash from Wales’ appalling second half performance in Scotland has been pretty brutal. A season of discontent boiled over with Welsh fans frustrated and desperately seeking change. Whilst the atmosphere in the Principality Stadium was sure to be electric, the build up had seen tickets going spare across the country. Disillusioned supporters, anticipating another defeat and fearing Friday night traffic and transport chaos, were voting with their feet. What they missed out on was a classic. An epic contest between two old rivals and, quite unexpectedly, a vintage Welsh performance.

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When the starting lineup was announced earlier in the week Welsh fans despaired. Players who underperformed at Murrayfield were simply given the shirt again and told “must do better”. There was seemingly no comeuppance for poor showings. The reality was that Scotland have progressed to the stage that they comfortably beat the men in red for the first time in ten years. Ireland have beaten the All Blacks this season, no one else can say that. And England are closing in on a world record winning streak. Rugby fans in Wales are very aware of what’s going on in the world. They watch rugby regularly and so can see these shifts. They’re selfish too and want their team to be enjoying that success. With Wales not winning a Six Nations title since 2013 the natives are understandably going to be restless. However Friday nights match saw a return of the Wales that last one the title.

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Built upon the foundations of huge physicality, Wales bludgeoned the Irish forwards, and crucially their half back combination, into submission. Anointed Lions pairing Connor Murray and Jonathan Sexton were battered and some distance away from the armchair ride they would’ve hoped to enjoy. This physicality was a return to the style¬†which won Wales championships a few years ago; ‘Warrenball’ based upon power and intensity. The defensive efforts were brutal with big hits coming in from both sides. Yet Wales refused to yield and defended their line manfully, succeeding in keeping the Irish out. Often an Achilles heel, Wales’ line out was not only accurate but also won crucial turnovers of Irish possession. Their attack was also equally effective.

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Having had a very public boot up the backside George North carried the ball like a man possessed. The wrecking ball on the right wing powered through green jerseys, constantly looked for work and was suitably rewarded with two tries. His first score was exactly the attacking play that Wales failed to convert against Scotland and in other games during the autumn. From the initial line break Rhys Webb ran an impressive support line to take the offload. Passing was then accurate and North plowed over to his clear relief. The second was an impressive example of simple ‘heads up’ rugby that took advantage of the extra man. Vitally important to efforts out wide were those up front with the back row battle proving to be a colossal contest. Warburton versus CJ Stander in particular was utterly engrossing to watch. Both must surely be Lions tourists in the summer. As the two flankers epitomised there was little between the sides and despite what the scoreline suggests this game could’ve gone either way.

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The turning point of the match was clearly when an Irish maul was marching towards the Welsh line only for Robbie Henshaw’s influence to cost his team a certain try. Henshaw clearly joined the maul ahead of Rory Best who had possession of the ball. It was an easy call for referee Wayne Barnes although Jon Davies did point it out for him too. It was a decision that came at a crucial time with the score at 15-9. Had the try been awarded Ireland would’ve had a conversion kick to go into the lead heading into the last ten minutes. Who knows what might’ve happened then. Instead Irish players heads went down as they seem to concede defeat with their chance blown. Jamie Roberts’ charge down third try sealed the deal.

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Whilst the win proves that Wales were simply a good team playing poorly, the future remains a concern. With few new caps and talent coming through, a World Cup challenge in 2019 will depend largely on this group of players. Inconsistency is the main worry with Wales capable of raising their game for big matches at home but not equalling those performances away from the home comforts of Cardiff. Even the reliable Leigh Halfpenny has slipped in his standards. He has missed shots at goal and hasn’t scored an international try for a very long time. Most startling have been some of the glaring handling errors made in the last two games that are very unlike the Halfpenny of 2013.

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Although Wales gave their fans a positive victory that few predicted, none of them were willing to allow it to paper over the cracks. Preventing the men in red slipping out of the top 8 of the world rankings was a must. Another pool of death at the 2019 World Cup would’ve been a disaster. Victory also vindicated Rob Howley’s decision to keep the same team and resist the calls for change. However the public are still clamouring for consistency and an attacking game that will threaten the top teams. Effective as it was, last night’s performance would not have dampened the disquiet. If the team can deliver more scores akin to George North’s first, combine that attacking game with a disciplined defence and accurate set pieces then Wales can finally challenge New Zealand. This will require consistent results and not just single performances at home.

The final challenge of the Six Nations is a trip to Paris. Perhaps only then will we have a better idea if the Ireland win was a one-off regression to ‘Warrenball’ or a sign of genuine progression that will lead to better things.