Wales’ defeat against Ireland confirms the scale of the task facing Warren Gatland
If Warren Gatland needed any confirmation of the scale of the challenge facing him back in charge of Wales, it was provided by the opening day of this 2023 Six Nations.
First he went down to his heaviest home defeat in the Championship as Welsh coach, with the 34-10 loss to Ireland surpassing anything he had suffered during his previous 11 year spell at the helm.
Then came the result from Twickenham, with his team’s next opponents, Scotland, recording a thrilling 29-23 bonus point victory over England to offer a taste of what lies in store up at Murrayfield in six days time.
No-one said it was going to be easy taking over a Welsh side that won just three out of 12 matches in 2022, against a backdrop of assorted off-field issues, and that’s certainly looking to be the case.
Yesterday’s encounter at the Principality Stadium demonstrated just how much work Gatland has on his hands in terms of sorting out his own side’s failings and the level he needs to try and get them to, as personified by the No 1 side in the world, Ireland.
This was a game that starkly revealed the current gulf between the two sides and the amount of ground Wales have to make up. It was to be a rude and rapid awakening.
Beforehand, there had been much talk about whether home fans would take it upon themselves to sing Delilah in the wake of the decision that choirs would no longer perform it at the stadium.
Well, just nine minutes into the game, there was a song echoing round the ground, but it wasn’t the Tom Jones tune. Instead, it was The Fields of Athenry being belted out by Irish supporters in celebration at their team having already crossed for two tries.
Another was to follow before too long and at 27-3 it was effectively game over inside half an hour. Wales had been blown away by their ruthless and relentless guests in green who had just been so clinical, converting pressure into points whenever the opportunity arose, be it via tries or penalties.
They made ground with ease through both forwards and backs and then when the whitewash came into view they were brutally efficient, pummeling their way over the line through a succession of forward carries, as No 8 Caelan Doris and lock James Ryan both touched down.
Wales were their own worst enemies in the opening half, with their indiscipline resulting in a string of penalties that allowed the Irish to maintain momentum, while error also cost them dear, with the third try they conceded being an interception run-in for wing James Lowe.
That was pretty much that as far as the game being a contest, but then came the other side of the coin in terms of issues that now need to be addressed.
Having been under the cosh and unpicked for the first 25 minutes, they were then to have far more of the play for the rest of the afternoon. In fact, it was to end up very even overall in terms of territory and possession by the final whistle.
Yet that merely served to illustrate the contrast between the two teams in terms of what they were able to do with the ball and their respective cutting edges.
Ireland made eight entries into the opposition 22 in all during the match and scored four tries, with flanker Josh van der Flier bursting over to secure the bonus point eight minutes from time.
Wales had ten such entries, yet claimed just one try, through full-back Liam Williams.
Therein lay arguably the biggest difference between the sides. One of them took their chances and the other didn’t.
Now admittedly, Wales had most of their scoring opportunities after the Irish were already out of sight and it may have been a case of the visitors taking their foot off the gas to an extent. But however the chances come along, you have to take them and Gatland’s men just weren’t able to do that.
Rio Dyer was beaten in a foot-race by Man of the Match Hugo Keenan after a kick through, Jac Morgan was held up over the line by Andrew Porter and Dan Biggar slipped at the crucial moment when it looked as though he was about to put Josh Adams in.
Then there was a pass from Justin Tipuric that was too high for winger Dyer after Liam Williams had sliced through from deep, while there were three instances of attacking lineouts going awry.
The chances were there, but Wales were just so profligate. They made more clean breaks than the Irish (six to five) and more metres than them overall (449 to 443), but they just couldn’t deliver the metres that really mattered – the ones taking them across the try line.
There was a frantic and frenetic nature to much of their attacking effort when what was needed was composure and calm heads. They huffed and puffed, but couldn’t blow the green house down.
Then, to rub salt in the wounds, Ireland showed again how it should be done with Van Der Flier’s try. It was a perfect illustration of patience rewarded, as a succession of carries wore the defence down until the gap opened up and the World Player of the Year showed off his good feet and rugby nous to deliver the finish.
For the Irish, it was job done and now they turn their attention to next weekend’s huge Dublin showdown with France.
As for Wales? Well, there were some positive individual performances. Tellingly, they came from young guns, with Joe Hawkins, Jac Morgan and Rio Dyer making decent contributions. They all made good ground off their carries, with winger Dyer running for 86 metres, the joint most, while blindside Morgan made more tackles than any other player on the pitch.
One wonders whether this will convince Gatland that it is time for a changing of the guard and to give youth its head, as he did in the year of the 2011 World Cup, when he unleashed the likes of Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Priestland and Dan Lydiate.
There will be at least one more fresh face in the starting line-up against Scotland next Saturday with second row Alun Wyn Jones having failed a HIA. You would imagine that would mean an opportunity for Exeter’s 20-year-old Dafydd Jenkins, who gave a good account of himself off the bench.
Another English-based Test rookie could potentially be handed a start, with Leicester’s openside Tommy Reffell having made a big impression after coming on as a replacement for Justin Tipuric.
There could also be an injury-enforced switch in the front row due to Tomas Francis’ calf issue, which would likely see Dillon Lewis wearing No 3.
So there could be a few changes in personnel, but the wider issue is whether Gatland can bring about enough of a change in the overall level of performance to make a game of it against a Scotland team that will be walking on air right now.
Discipline is one major issue to work on, with the penalty count needing to be reduced from 15 down to single figures ideally, with the number of turnovers conceded also far too high at 14.
On the back of 34 missed tackles, the defence will have to be significantly stiffened, especially with the huge threat the Scots pose with ball in hand.
The set-piece is a further concern after wobbles at both scrum and lineout. Then there’s the attack and that pressing need to be far more clinical when scoring opportunities arise.
So lots to work and not much time to do it in before the trip to Edinburgh.
But Gatland remains convinced that the situation is fixable. “Strangely, I’m not that disappointed with a lot of the things in the game,” said the Kiwi coach.
“The things I am disappointed with are things we can fix up.”
He proceeded to point to the “needless” penalties given away in the first half, he talked about the importance of defensive line-speed and how lessons can be learned from the Irish in attack.
“We created some opportunities, but we just weren’t quite good enough at the moment to finish those off,” he said.
“Ireland are a good side because they have been together for a long time and they don’t make many mistakes and manage the game well. That’s why they are the No 1 side in the world. That’s the step up we need to take, in terms of being clinical, being patient.”
So we’ve seen the benchmark. We now wait to see how Gatland goes about trying to get Wales up to that level and just how successful he proves to be in his efforts – second time around.
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