They are coming round the corner hard, fast, and in numbers, as Warren Gatland’s sides tend to do – and England had better be ready. Wales showed in Dublin with their well-deserved victory in this full-throttle World Cup curtain-raiser, that although Stuart Lancaster’s immediate attention will be on Ireland at Twickenham this weekend, it will be the boyos in red who they will have to watch out for first and foremost.
By inflicting a second defeat on the double Six Nations champions within the last five months, and rubbing salt into Irish wounds by doing it on Paul O’Connell’s send-off on Irish soil, Wales announced that they are up and running as serious World Cup contenders. Gatland’s side also put down a marker of such hard-nosed quality that anyone who thinks that qualifying from Pool A is the preserve of England and Australia is living in La-la land.
If England’s meeting with Wales at Twickenham on September 26 is fraught with pitfalls for the host nation, the good news for the game as a whole was that George North emerged unscathed from his first game since his concussion troubles in March.
However, the same could not be said of Ireland’s reputation as the pacesetters in Northern Hemisphere rugby. They were left winded by the Welsh win in their backyard, and especially by the command performance of a Welsh pack which had an outstanding individual presence in each row.
Foremost among them was Justin Tipuric, with the Ospreys openside taking full advantage of the absence of Welsh captain Sam Warburton (with a shoulder niggle) by making a resounding staement. Tipuric was at the heart of this victory, leaving an imprint that not only challenges Warburton’s primacy in the Wales 7 shirt, but challenges the assumption that all the best opensides reside south of the equator.
Tipuric not only scored his side’s try, tucking in expertly at the tail of the Welsh wedge to finish off a powerhouse line-out drive midway through the first half, he also proved a defensive stumbling block for the Irish throughout.
A scything tackle early in the second half prevented a clean break by the powerful Irish centre Robbie Henshaw, and then the Osprey swooped again, when, midway through the half, he foiled another try from an Irish line-out drive. Tipuric’s timing and judgement were perfection as he reefed the ball off Sean O’Brien to force a knock-on on the Welsh line.
It was one of three turn-overs won by the flanker, whose impact on the game was also reflected in a tally of 18 tackles and impressive linking in attack. With Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau also making conspicuous contributions at Lansdowne Road, and Warburton and former England U20 Ross Moriarty in the mix, the Welsh are going into this World Cup well-stocked with backrow options.
One of these will be to stretch an England back row that looks relatively one-paced by employing the double openside strategy of playing Warburton and Tipuric together on the flanks, just as the Australians have done with Michael Hooper and David Pocock.
A further bonus for Gatland is that Alun Wyn Jones, who announced himself as a world-class operator by leading the Lions to victory in the third Test in Sydney in 2013, demonstrated here that he’s become an even more authoritative second row force since then.
Jones has helped to transform the Welsh line-out drive into a formidable weapon, and is so supercharged in the loose that he makes his English rivals look ordinary. His appetite for work and effectiveness appeared to be almost double that of his English counterparts in Paris last weekend, and he also had the satisfaction of upstaging his old Lions partner O’Connell.
Gatland has proved himself adept at raiding English resources, and the last of the three outstanding forward contributions in Dublin came from his latest acquisition, the Exeter Chiefs tight-head, Tomas Francis. When the Welsh-Kiwi coach learned that Francis had a Welsh grandmother he didn’t hang around, and the 23-year-old has made such progress in the training camp – including shedding more than a stone in weight (8kg) – that he is now likely to be the Welsh World Cup starting No.3.
Francis showed why he is so highly rated by keeping the Welsh scrum solid on its own put-in despite continuous Irish attempts at whip-wheels. He also put his 20 stone bulk to good use in the line-out drive, where Wales foiled Ireland’s attempts to haul it down early by transferring the ball swiftly to a player two-deep from the catcher.
The technique paid dividends with Tipuric’s try, and it was one of a number of areas, both at the set-piece and the breakdown, which indicated that the Welsh pack will be a formidable proposition for England in their World Cup showdown a month from now.
There was the suggestion before their 16-10 reverse yesterday, that had Ireland won, coach Joe Schmidt would have picked a mix-and-match side at Twickenham rather than a near full-strength line-up.
That’s probably changed, because Schmidt is unlikely to want to go into the tournament with two consecutive defeats on the Irish ledger.
Although second-row Iain Henderson put down his marker with an abrasive display, driving through Dan Biggar for the Irish try, and going toe-to-toe with Tipuric and company throughout, Schmidt will be unhappy that his pack came second at close quarters.
Despite having their precision kicking half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton back in tandem, the upshot was that Ireland were unable
to get their usually relentless phase play in gear and mount pressure.
The England forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, can rest assured that his restructured pack will face a thorough examination as a result – and that if Murray and Sexton are given a platform, the England back three will be peppered from all angles.
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