Friday, February 24, 2006

Bedraggled Wales Face Embattled Ireland - Fun Results

On the third week of the Six Nations most interest will be focused on Lansdowne Road on Sunday for the visit of Wales. The Calcutta Cup tie at Murrayfield tomorrow may be tumultuous with patriotic fervour - all skirling pipes and fireworks - but although neither side may win the tournament, the circumstances of recent weeks mean that the meeting of Ireland and Wales will carry the most fascination.

Wales arrive less their Grand Slam winning coach and their inspirational captain, and plus the controversial playboy centre whose prose activities earned him no favours with his team mates. That, of course, doesn't tell half the story of what as been a typically wounding few weeks for the Welsh. How dispiriting must it be for the Welsh supporters to have followed up their rousing success of last year, and seeming return to international respectability, with the shambles of Mike Ruddock's demise, which given its similarities to Irish soccer's darkest hour, should henceforth be known as the Dai-pan affair.

The timeline of events has been covered in detail elsewhere, so the focus now is on the Scott Johnson era - apparently to be shortlived according to claims from within the Australian's home union yesterday - and whether the charismatic skills coach's ethos, now unfettered, will result in a Welsh performance of gay, running abandon. Ruddock was given credit for steadying the Welsh set-piece sufficiently to allow their Johnson-inspired improvisational formula room to breathe. Indeed, the succession of shoves on the Scottish scrum which led to Wales' first try a fortnight ago can be attributed to Ruddock's influence.

Of course no rugby side can survive by flair alone, and surely Wales will not abandon core virtues on Sunday. However Kevin Mitchell's piece in last Sunday's Observer provides some interesting data about the Welsh forwards. For those too lazy to read it, basically, based on statistics from last season's championship, Welsh forwards passed the ball exponentially more than their opponents. For example, against Scotland last year, the Welsh forwards made 46 passes in the first half, three fewer than Ireland's forwards did in the whole championship, and in their match against Wales, English forwards passed the ball only twice.

Mitchell uses this data as evidence to support Ruddock, whose province the forwards were. However it is difficult not to detect the hand of Johnson - the skills coach - in all this passing around, and one wonders if this influence will be even more pronounced on Sunday.

Just as interesting to see will be the Irish reaction to the peculiar afternoon in Paris two weeks ago. Almost saved by the tactic of running and moving the ball, will Ireland attempt to take on the Welsh at their own game? Or will they revert to a tactic of grinding down the front five in the tight and limiting the time the ball spends in impish Welsh hands? Its a major decision for Eddie O'Sullivan, a coach whose long term future is now a popular subject for conjecture.

It is a worrying fact that we should still be speculating about how Ireland will play, about whether O'Sullivan can get the best out of the players and about whether he really knows how he wants his team to play. Is his heart really in making Ireland a running team, given his reputation for structure?

He may feel queasy at the thought of the Welsh back row, particularly Martyn Williams, passing off the fringes, and Dwayne Peel tapping and running everything and decide to attempt to slow the game down. But then he may feel morally obliged to try and cut loose the instincts that saw Ireland put four tries second half on France, knowing that if successful it could give his coaching reign a serious fillip.

Big call Eddie.


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