The first round of the new Autumn Nations Cup sees Ireland and Wales once more getting to grips with each other!

Posted: November 12, 2020 in General Commentary
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Perhaps the best news we’ve had all week is the fact that here in Canada we will be able to watch the whole tournament directly through DAZN, instead of having to test our Internet skills. It promises to be an entertaining and intriguing competition, and is the first regular run of Test rugby the participating teams will have had since COVID-19 made such a dramatic stamp on the global game back in March.

It replaces the traditional fall tours by Southern Hemisphere sides, and as a result of the travel restrictions currently in place, it has a distinctive Six Nations flavor with all participants in the Northern Hemisphere’s premier competition taking part. However, to add some spice to the mix, Georgia and Fiji are joining the party. The first match sees traditional Celtic rivals Ireland and Wales take to the field in Dublin on Friday night, and both sides have plenty to prove and as a result this competition is a vital cog in their rebuilding plans since the last World Cup. We’ll be having a look at Saturday and Sunday’s matches in separate pieces.

Ireland vs Wales – Dublin – Friday, November 13th

If any team is suffering from Friday the 13th demons it’s most likely Wales. There is plenty going on in the Welsh camp since Coach Wayne Pivac took over from Wayne Gatland after the last World Cup. In an attempt to assert his own style on the team after his successor guided Wales through one of their most successful periods in recent memory, Pivac has wrought the changes particularly in the Coaching team, and it would appear that some of these adjustments have ruffled more than a few feathers amongst players and fans alike. Unfortunately Pivac’s arguments have not been helped as Wales find themselves coming into this match off the back of a five game losing streak, something the Men in Red are simply not used to.

Ireland have also experienced a Coaching transition, and while their results have been more encouraging than Wales, the jury is still very much out on how effective Andy Farrell has been in taking over from Joe Schmidt who made Ireland a team to be genuinely feared. Ireland are faced with the problem that many of the players who played such a big part in making Ireland so successful in the last World Cup cycle are starting to lose some of their luster, and there is no clear view as to who and and how they are to be replaced.

So here are the points that got us talking about the lineups for tomorrow’s fixture.

Wales have to be competitive in the set pieces up front – especially at scrum time

We’re genuinely worried about Wales here as their front row seems to lack any kind of traction at the moment, as well as suffering from constant discipline breakdowns. With Ireland fielding an aggressive and capable front row featuring centurion Cian Healy as part of an all Leinster trio, Wales really need to develop some confidence here, and we can’t help feeling they are going to really struggle up front. Ireland are still without the services of Tadgh Furlong, but they seem to be coping relatively well without him. Aggressive and with Andrew Porter able to generate the kind of bruising niggle that can unhinge teams in the tight exchanges up front, we expect to see Ireland comfortably have the upper hand here. What Wales need to do is keep their cool and turn the tables on Ireland and target the fiery nature of Porter and Healy, so that it’s the Irishmen finding themselves on the wrong side of referee Mathieu Raynal’s whistle and not the Welsh. It’s going to be all about composure and technique for Wales on Friday night and if they manage both then it will be the first positive step on the road to recovery.

Wales eagerly await the return of Thor and Superman

We just haven’t seen them of late and Wales need them more than ever in the next few weeks, yes you know who we’re talking about Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn-Jones. AWJ aka Superman, recently became the World’s most capped Test rugby player, and we sincerely hope the accolade doesn’t mean that this legendary second rower and Captain is on the back curve of the contributions he can make to the Welsh jersey. He is such a vital cog in developing genuine Welsh momentum, and can single handedly turn a match around. A player who up till now has seemed impervious to both injury and fatigue, is sadly perhaps suffering slightly from the latter. In the last few matches his towering presence and leadership qualities have seemed absent at times. In short the mighty warrior looks tired. We certainly don’t think he’s done just yet, and Wales definitely need him to be at his best over the coming weeks to firmly stop the rot that seems to be setting into the national side.

As for Thor, aka Justin Tipuric, as regular readers of this blog know, he has genuine superhero status here at the Lineout. In our opinion, initially one of the most underrated players to ever don a Welsh jersey, he has put in some truly monumental performances over the last few years. The back rower is so key to Wales being successful, that we simply cannot imagine a team sheet without his name on it. Like his Captain, he seems both tireless and immune to physical injury. However, he too has been strangely quiet the last few matches, and it has shown in Wales diminishing returns in terms of results in their last five outings. Both himself and Wyn-Jones are such quality players, we sincerely hope that at the end of 80 minutes tomorrow night, both these gentlemen will have been referred to by match commentators continuously throughout the game. If they do then Ireland are going to have their work cut out for them.

What works for Leinster may not necessarily work for Ireland

Of the 15 players starting for Ireland tomorrow night, 11 of them are from Leinster. Yes we understand why, given that Leinster are such a powerhouse of Irish rugby at the moment and are essentially sweeping all before them. However, Irish supporters must surely feel a little concerned that Coach Andy Farrell is literally putting all his eggs in one basket. Furthermore fly half Jonathan Sexton is starting to look past his prime, at Test level at least. Lastly Farrell choosing to draft in a raft of Leinster players who have only just become eligible for Irish colors at the expense of some genuine local talent from other provincial sides, has caused rather heated debate amongst Irish fans.

We like many have no issue with foreign players taking up the jersey of the country they end up playing their club rugby in. South African back rower CJ Stander has been immense for Ireland, and is a player who has enormous pride in donning the green for Ireland. However, it does raise the question of how this negatively affects the careers of up and coming local players. We don’t really see a problem with James Lowe’s inclusion on the wing tomorrow night, though between him and Jacob Stockdale there are some worrying defensive concerns at the back. However, Ireland’s depth out wide still needs further examination so Lowe’s inclusion is a useful exercise in this respect.

Where we do take issue however, is the inclusion of New Zealand scrum half Jamison Gibson-Park over up and coming Ulster number nine John Cooney. In our opinion Gibson-Park gets a good press because he plays in a team, Leinster, that essentially can make anyone look good. Cooney on the other hand has made Ulster look good. Furthermore, we very much doubt that Gibson-Park, will still be the flavor of the month come the World Cup. Ireland desperately need to develop successors to both Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray at scrum half, and in the case of the latter we just don’t believe Gibson-Park is the answer, even if he is sporting perhaps the most impressive beard in Test Rugby.

It will be interesting to see how Ireland fare on Friday with what is essentially a Leinster side, and whether or not Farrell’s bias towards the Dublin men will change as the tournament unfolds.

On the subject of conspicuous absences, we can’t remember the last time we saw Wales own the centre channels.

Watch a rerun of the Scottish game last weekend, or the French friendly a fortnight ago, and let us know if you can spot Wales doing anything constructive up the middle of the park. Wales’ key strength here if anything appears to be defensive lapses and unforced errors. It’s something we’ve battled to understand as in Jonathan Davies at least Wales have a quality strike threat.

By contrast Ireland have looked good here, and Robbie Henshaw had a game last weekend that clearly left us with egg on our face after we had critiqued what we felt was a lack of imagination in attack. His try last weekend against France put that criticism to bed in no uncertain terms. Add to that Chris Farrell’s bruising ball carrying ability, and unless the Welsh duo have a second coming on Friday night, Wales could hurt very badly here indeed.

For the definition of pressure cooker – refer to Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale

From being the baby faced try seeking missile of 2018 to public enemy number one in 2020, is how Stockdale’s career seems to have progressed in the last two years. Consequently the eyes of a nation will be bearing down on the Ulster fullback on Friday night, as his defensive abilities or the complete lack thereof were a major source of concern against France a fortnight ago in Paris. He has been more successful in the role at Ulster but as mentioned above there is a big difference between Test and provincial rugby. Wales are likely to put Stockdale under a continuous aerial bombardment and keep him as exposed as possible. Add to that the fact that his tackling is suspect to say the least, and another bad outing in the green jersey is likely to heighten the calls to put him back on the wing where he is known for doing things like this:

Our take on it is that Stockdale is a fine player and one that Ireland absolutely have to continue to develop. However, we are just not convinced he’s a Test fullback and at times has appeared both lazy and careless in the position, which would indicate to us that perhaps he himself doesn’t want to be there in the first place. If the experiment proves a disaster once again tomorrow night, then surely something needs to change and Ireland need to reexamine their options here. Stick Stockdale back on the wing, though continue to work on his defensive skills, but find a credible fifteen and stick with it. There is no denying that Stockdale’s lanky figure does offer an impressive boot as a bonus which tends to reinforce the argument for making the 15 jersey his. However, Ireland need to develop some alternates here, as they were often found wanting at 15 in the past and so far it shows no sign of being resolved. Our heart does go out to him on Friday night as the pressure he is now under is certainly not going to help his nerves.

We can’t wait for this tournament to get underway, and it should provide us with some solid rugby entertainment over the next month. Our money is on Ireland to add to Wales’ continuing woes on Friday night in Dublin, but we’re expecting a strong performance from Wales as they try to give their passionate supporters something to cheer about after an uncharacteristic drought in the land of the red dragon.

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