Monday, February 27, 2006

Ireland Get It Right

The word 'pivotal' was used often in the run-up to yesterday's match, and was a fitting adjective when you imagine the contrasting moods in the Irish and Welsh camps this morning, looking towards the climax of the Six Nations Championship. If this pivotal match had a pivotal moment, it occured after 18 minutes when Stephen Jones, the Welsh out-half, limped out of the match. From that moment, Ireland grew, while Wales shrivelled.

Having spent the opening quarter camped in Ireland's half, and notching the first try of the game, the Welsh suddenly and dramatically collapsed. It was as if, with the absence of Gareth Thomas, Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin, to name but three backs in a longer injury list, Jones had alone kept the flame of the Welsh Grand Slam team burning, the number 10 running the whole game in a masterful opening spell. In his absence, Wales collapsed, unable to cope with yet another crucial absentee, and were unrecognisable as a team who had swept all before them a year ago.

It is tempting to pour scorn on someone like Gavin Henson, whose primped and plucked appearance invites derision. True he missed a tackle on Andrew Trimble, which allowed the young Ulsterman to make Ireland's first serious foray into Welsh territory and ultimately culminated in Ireland's opening try, and kicked woefully and too often. But Henson was playing only his second match in seven months and his first for Wales since the Slam was sealed, and it was too much to expect him to take on Jones' formidable mantle in such circumstances.

Last week we speculated as to how Ireland would approach the game. The outcome was a clear vindication for Eddie O'Sullivan and his players. Forget the question of loose or tight tactics, Ireland simply playing winning rugby yesterday. Doing enough in the scrum, solid and efficient in the line-out, mauling wisely, sharp in the breakdown and rucks, and then really exploiting the talent in the backs with several breathtaking sequences, the pick of which - an interchange involving Horgan, O'Driscoll and O'Gara - saw Jerry Flannery held up just short when a try seemed inevitable.

As well as the coach, several players will be feeling vindicated this morning. Peter Stringer capped a fine performance with a late try, and it does the heart good to see the little tyke finally responding to long-standing criticism. Malcolm O'Kelly also deserves huge credit for making the absence of Paul O'Connell as unnoticeable as possible, just when it seemed his career at the top level was in danger. Geordan Murphy's class should never be in doubt, but he came up with a solid display to assuages worries over his recent form.

As a team, though, most importantly, it was at last a display approaching, or even suggesting at, the potential within the squad of players - and a timely shot in the arm for Eddie O'Sullivan's stewardship.


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