Saturday, March 14, 2015

Wales-Ireland: Where It Will Be Won and Lost

Today Wales take on Ireland in a game that could make or break the championship for both sides. Ireland have started the tournament where they left off last year and without doubt look the best side above the equator. Meanwhile, Wales find themselves on an upward trajectory from a terrible opener against England; where DJ Spoony and some laser lights were the only spectacle Welsh fans enjoyed less.

So let's take a look at where today's game will be won and lost.

The Kicking Game
Much has been made of Ireland's kicking and the England game showed why. In reality Ireland don't kick as often as either Wales or England, but rarely kick aimlessly. Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray often kick with the intention of retention and are more than adept at rugby league style  cross field kicks for their wingers to compete.
Much depends on the fitness of Sexton, but against England it was Murray who led by example on the Irish kicking game - only one of Sexton's kicks was retained, compared to five of Murray's. This kick to compete policy is clear in distances of kicks from hand. Ireland averaged just 35 metres per kick, 13 metres less than England (who failed to gather one of their own kicks).
Of the 32 kicks Ireland did not retain, 13 led directly to turnovers. That means even when they don't win the aerial battle, Ireland's disciplined chase means they still get the ball back.
How do Wales compete? By doing what they've been doing. In the first two weeks of the tournament Wales retained more kicks than any other team. 21% of Welsh kicks were retained with Ireland keeping 18% of the possession they put boot to.
Nobody implements the up-and-under more frequently or as well as Wales do.
With the kicking abilities of both teams, rugby may go airborne. As it stands Ireland rule the air, but I can't think of any team better equipped to challenge them than one that contains Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar. It could make for a fascinating battle.

The Set Piece
The last four winners of the Six Nations have achieved over 90% ball retention from their own set piece.
The front row battle come scrum time will be epic. However, it's the lineout where the men in green really thrive. Since 2010 42% of Ireland's tries have come from their own lineouts, with a further 9% coming from their opponents throw. Paul O'Connell and the monolithic Devin Toner are a virtually invincible at the lineout, losing just one against England and pinching three from under England's noses.
Ireland's lineout is a powerful weapon, creating ball for Murray and Sexton or starting the devastating rolling maul that they operate to a high degree - something Wales have often struggled to defend.
However, Wales proved how far they have come against France and Luke Charteris waded through Frenchmen as effortlessly as an adult through a paddling pool. The lineout also functioned to perfection, failing to lose a single ball as they did for the whole of the 2013 championship.
If Wales can get parity at the set piece, it puts them in good stead.

The Breakdown
Ireland have become masters of the ruck. With Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahoney in the backrow, there are few teams as capable at the breakdown. It's the hard work and a disciplined kick chase that reaps rewards. In the first half of the England game, Ireland won three penalties at the ruck and all were kicked to give them a 9-3 lead at half time.
With ball in hand Ireland play it simple; don't get isolated, keep the ball in contact and clear quickly to secure possession. It's a low risk, high reward tactic. They average just 4 offloads a game, but get turned over just 8.6 times. Compare that with France; 16 offloads per game but lose the same amount of turnovers.
Wales know they will have to be on top of their game; when they are, they're a force. Sam Warburton will endeavour to find weaknesses in the seemingly water tight Irish ruck, whilst every player must play intelligent rugby to stop vultures of the Irish pack scavenging on unprotected possession.
Wales were battered, bullied and badly beaten by England's forwards but have responded well. Today they meet their toughest opponents so far.

Taking Chances
Chances may be at a premium and both sides will need to put points on the board with clinical efficiency. Against France, Wales enjoyed 75% possession and 80% territory at first half, but only had a 3 point lead to show for their troubles. If they are that wasteful today, they will lose.
Both teams have place kickers of the highest order and will have to keep themselves straight or be punished. Defences are strong and Halfpenny and Sexton's personal battle from behind the kicking tee could decided the game.

Whatever happens - with both teams wanting the win and next week's opportunity to have it all - the game should be epic.
Faith No More - Epic

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