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22nd February 2004
Ireland vs Wales (Feb 2004)

Let's get one thing straight. Ireland probably wouldn't have scored any tries if they'd being playing against England, maybe one if they were lucky. This wasn't a fantastic Irish performance, it was a typical one.

Everyone has been going on about the Welsh 'revival', but let's be honest - they've only won one game lately, and that was against a pretty poor Scotland, and even then the margin of victory was just 13 points. Yes, Wales have played some incredible flowing, running rugby, but it doesn't always win you matches! It was the usual set of Welsh players that took to the field in Dublin - capable of playing good, exciting rugby, probably more exciting to watch than any other team in the Six Nations when they get going. The problem is, and has been for a while, that you need to get (and keep) the ball before your skill can be put to good use.

But let's make sure we don't blame it all on the forwards - two of the Irish tries came from the inability of the Welsh backs to clear the ball to safety, managing only to give away an Ireland lineout close to the Welsh line. The backs need to show a little bit more sympathy for their forwards, rather than expecting them to be everywhere at once. This was nicely demonstrated by the numerous occasions on which one Welsh player was left horribly isolated, allowing Ireland to either steal the ball, or win a penalty.

Perhaps Wales need to learn to be a bit more 'streetwise'. It's all very well having enthusiastic players who will dart about the pitch and try and play rugby the way it's meant to be played, but a bit of killing the ball here, a bit of pushing the offside line there, and they might be able to compete a bit more. Ireland showed that they were well practiced in this area - their forwards could have been penalised many times for going straight over the top of a ruck and down on top of their player if the letter of the law was being follwed precisely, but knew exactly how much they could do it and still get away with it. Wales on the other hand, would honestly compete at most rucks and mauls, which sadly won't get you very far in international rugby.

Now we come on to the customary whinge about the ref. As my housemate will testify, when the commentator said who the ref was, I was not best pleased. It's not that I can remember a specific game when he's made a specific bad decision, but that I seem to recall numerous occasions when his general refereeing has been less than adequate. In my opinion, the Ireland vs Wales game was another of those occasions. At one point, moments before one of O'Driscoll's tries, there was a perfect example of accidental offside - it could be used in referee training videos to explain what accidental offside is it was so obvious - but the ref and his two touch judges managed to miss it completely. And then there was O'Driscoll's shove on a Welsh player when chasing the ball - something for which the term 'professional foul' could have been invented - entirely deliberate, and essentially cheating. At least the referee noticed this one and awarded a penalty, but a yellow card as well would've been a more suitable punishment. There were plenty of other occasions during the game when his decisions were equally baffling, and as always, it was the team with more territory and possession that benefited from poor refereeing.

Anyway, poor though the ref was, you certainly can't blame the entire result on him. You can't even blame the result on an incredible Irish display - it was just unacceptably disappointing defending from Wales. There is one thing that no team can defend against though, and it is an issue that seriously needs to be addressed - the rolling maul. Ireland created plenty of chances - a couple of which turned into tries - using hooker Byrne at the back of the maul. Well, I say at the back of the maul, I mean just about, maybe touching the backside of an Irish player who was in the maul with his outstretched arm - surely this is not the way we want to see the game of rugby being played. The IRB have tried to clarify this issue, but it seems that they are too scared to make any real alterations.

So what can Wales do to improve? As it stands, they are good enough to brush past Scotland and Italy, but will struggle to overcome England, Ireland and France without large slices of luck along the way. Obviously, little work needs to be done on the handling and invention side of things, but there is much improvement needed when it comes to slowly breaking down a defence through multiple-phase possession, and also in defence - slowing down opposition ball and not leaving any holes in the defensive line are vital parts of international rugby.

Even though Wales lost pretty spectacularly, they still showed the kind of rugby they can play with two great tries near the end of the Ireland game, and it is great to see such exciting rugby being played - it can only be good for the game of rugby in Wales, but it needs to be accompanied by some good results. This is in massive contrast to England, who play dull, textbook rugby and when the young fans see that, they just all want to be a Jonny Wilkinson. Clive Woodward even said after his side's victory over Scotland "We are here to watch a game of rugby not sing songs" - so no exciting rugby, and no good atmospheric, singing crowds seems to be Woodward's recipe for future success for England in rugby. I remain optimistic that Wales can be better than their neighbours in 10-15 years time, and even if they aren't, I know that they'll be having a better time watching the rugby than England will!

Phew, I think that's all I have to say. Nice to get a few things off your chest sometimes. If you have any comments on this, feel free to email them to comments@gptucker.net, and I might even add them to this page!