Roof closed, dry ball – We’re in for a rip-roarer in Cardiff

19 March 2017

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Simon Zebo has a giveaway poker face, and we should all be thankful for that. I watched him on television this week and his interview and demeanour gave off a distinct sense that Ireland have been working persistently on their attack game in the two weeks since the France victory.

It was nothing he said in particular, but there were trigger words: Clinical. Ruthless. Green zone. It’s stuff that’s obviously in his head. Zeebs has a feel for rugby, he has little capacity to or interest in suppressing the joy he gets from rugby every day.
He’s thinking ‘we are going to play a lot of ball this weekend, I am going to get opportunities’. He’s happy.

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The roof will be closed, the ball will be relatively dry (condensation can be a problem), the track will be fast. We are in for a rip-roarer in Cardiff. Ireland’s attack will be far more potent than the Scottish attack that put two tries on Wales. Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards know that too. I’ve watched the tapes back like they have, and the Welsh defensive reads on those Seymour and Visser tries would be a source of great concern to me if I was the defence coach. Unless those basic errors on defence have been totally eradicated, there’s no possible way they can entertain hopes of winning this game tonight.

Why do I say that? Because those two tries were more about abysmal defensive reads from the Welsh than creative ingenuity from the Scots. Wales had seven defensive bodies in about 30 metres of space — ample cover for any eventuality. For the second try by Visser, Scotland should have been smashed 15m from the try line. That’s not off the pace a small bit — that’s a serious lapse by proper players, Biggar, North, Davies. How Wales defensively have got to that place is the disturbing aspect.

Of course, they’ll have worked slavishly on ensuring that particular mistake isn’t repeated tonight, but there are more fundamental problems here. Those two tries are symptomatic of where Wales’ heads are at the moment. The Welsh have always prided themselves on their defence with good reason. They changed their defensive alignment a few seasons back from winger up first to 13 up first, but this isn’t a system breakdown. Scotland wouldn’t have claimed those scores in the past. That’s not something that’s going to be corrected in a fortnight.

The lack of communication on the run between the Welsh players and the very poor decision making indicates that defensively the players are not on the same team page — knowing who has the ball-carrier, who has the inside line, who has the outside. Those three-man pods.

That particular element will be rectified for tonight, but how did it happen in the first place and where else are the weak points? How strong is the chain? If there is a chink, there is no-one better to exploit it than Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

First, though, Ireland have to inject uncertainty into the Welsh psyche. The visitors have their suspect areas too. Wales will look to poke at the callow midfield, Williams and Davies testing the mettle of two barely 20-somethings in Henshaw and Ringrose.

For sure, the Welsh support will be frothing. There are two unforgivable sins for Welsh rugby — losing at home to England and having to accept losing at home to Ireland. The Welsh have already lost two, and after tonight they have to go to Paris. The squad has been ominously quiet over the past 10 days. They know. Homes games are non-negotiable. Everything you stand for, your country, your nation of people. If an alien walked in off the street the first thing he learns about rugby in the principality is its soul. Proud Welsh men leaving it all out there. That’s been the message all week.

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The Millennium is my favourite away stadium. It’s a built-for-rugby stadium, not for athletics, and there’s a big difference. The crowds are mounted heaven-high, over-hanging the grass almost.

With the roof closed, the heat rises then falls. There’s been times when the place has been humming as an indoor arena and the ball has been like a bar of soap.

But once Ireland don’t succumb to anything outside the white lines, they’re in the ascendancy. You will know I am a Dan Biggar fan, but I am still waiting for the kick-on from last season. It hasn’t happened. He’s flat at the minute. The same with George North, a Lion who is not playing well. He is struggling at Northampton and looks like he is racked with uncertainty.

He is a great athlete but you wouldn’t have thought it looking at the Scottish game.

It’s an interesting exercise too to examine the respective benches and their perspectives. Ireland’s should be filled with positive crankiness. I am not sure the Wales bench will be the same. Both managements have gone with the same 15s. If you are of a loser’s mindset, you’re thinking dark skies overhead, no light when you should be thinking I’m a professional, there are doors closing in my face every day, I am not going to get down or give in.

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Peter O’Mahony must be beyond agitated at this stage. He’s contrary, cranky but examine the decision from Joe Schmidt’s point of view: Who is he to leave out? O’Mahony is very close, he’s got to hang in there. Now, imagine what he is like if and when he does get a sniff of the jersey? A substitute that’s ready can have as much of an impact in 15 minutes as a starter. But 90% of the time, the sulker has spent half the week with the coffee club bitching about who’s starting. When the call comes he’s like ‘uh oh, mentally off the pitch’.

Craig Gilroy delivered in Rome and he’s sitting at home this week with Tommy Bowe on the bench. The younger man has reason to be frustrated. But look through Joe’s strategy — away game, a cauldron, does it suit Ireland if Ringrose, Henshaw and Gilroy are finishing the game? Schmidt’s banking on Bowe looking after North.

We’ve all been The Sulker. Those in the bubble can almost time the process of being around one of those colleagues. You are guaranteed 24 to 48 hours of being a wanker. If it persists after that, the squad will have a word with you. You get the tap on the shoulder Monday that you are not starting. In that world, a good night’s sleep does wonders. You go back to your room, sulk, but then you move on. By Thursday it has to be a positive environment, what’s best for the team. Your reaction shows your class as a person.

Stay tuned in. When you come on, you’ve got to be good. If not, it justifies the coach’s decision. You are playing a game versus the coach and the opposition. That’s where you derive your motivation.

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Paddy Jackson isn’t sulking. He’s not there yet v Johnny Sexton, but he’s gone to a new level, and not just statistically. Even the way he is filling the jersey now. It felt like a new Paddy Jackson coming on against France. That assured decision-making.

I can picture the breakfast room tomorrow morning. England next. The Calcutta Cup match tomorrow would be a cracking game in Murrayfield, but I can’t see it going against the grain at Twickenham. I said from the outset that Murrayfield and Cardiff would be Ireland’s toughest games this year. England shouldn’t frighten the Irish. There are a lot of English players there for quite a while who are good, but not great. We are well over the days of being fooled by the white jersey with the red rose.

If Ireland lose tonight, I don’t want to be in that breakfast room. Yes, by next Friday the atmosphere will be there for the English coming to town. But a win tonight and the countdown starts tomorrow morning, when Ireland — the squad and the country — skips down to breakfast.
But let’s get to tomorrow morning first.

Madigan’s doing the right thing — looking after No. 1

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Ian Madigan is looking after Ian Madigan, and that’s okay too. He didn’t enjoy the Bordeaux experience for many reasons. He got offered a contract that makes him one of the best-paid rugby players in the world and he’s taken it. He’s gambling if Bristol are relegated, they’ll bounce straight back from the championship.

When he left Leinster, Ian knew he was leaving the system. He is now thinking as Madigan the pro rugby player, not Madigan the Irish international. That means looking after Ian Madigan, and perhaps he is right. When he is finished, no-one will be looking after Ian Madigan.

I see it in France all the time: There may be nothing better than playing for your country, but if there is someone blocking you at provincial level, a man has to look at his options. He has done his back-up years, he has the caps, now he’s minding his financial future.
Make no mistake, though, if his form was good enough with Bordeaux, which it wasn’t, he’d be in the Irish squad. The geography is not the issue here. The elite players find their level and want to test themselves against each other. In Irish camp, there are no hard luck stories as to who’s playing and who’s not (the freakish competition in the back row at the moment is an exception).

If there’s someone in the backs, as an example, who feels he’s hard done by, he gets multiple chances in training to show his worth. The public see a guy for 80 minutes a week – pro players see each other twice a day, so you see exactly how good their skills are, what they have to offer.
For instance, we really have no idea, in the absence of peer confirmation, just how good Gary Ringrose might be in the future. We hear anecdotal evidence, but the lads who are clocking up 200 minutes a week with him on the pitch have the wide lens.

Madigan isn’t the first Schmidt protégé who has struggled in a different environment under another coach. He got injured, his form dipped in Bordeaux. He would certainly be good enough to be starting in Bordeaux and then to challenge for an Irish spot, but he’s chosen another pathway. An incredible offer was put under his nose, a big, big deal that will look after his financial future.

That’s locked away now. Let’s see what happens over the next 18 months.

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