You could see it coming.
Many had predicted a tight contest in Dublin between two equally-matched sides. Some (including this sheepish blogger) had even predicted a Welsh win, albeit by a small margin. But given the opening weekend’s results, the predicted Lions fatigue and Ireland’s impressive recent run of form, a trouncing was not out of the question. And that’s exactly what transpired last Saturday afternoon.
What made this embarrassing loss even more painful (a loss already described by Warren Gatland as the worst under his tenure) was the ‘come and stop us’ attitude that permeated the Welsh media in the build-up to the big game. When asked for views and comment on how Wales would approach the match, commentators and pundits had been unanimous in their opinion: ‘They’ll play exactly as they have done for the last six years’. This style of play (dubbed ‘Warrenball’ by the Aussies) is characterised by physical and direct running against the defence, breaking the initial gain-line before bringing runners around the ruck for more direct running in the proceeding phases. The idea is that, after several phases of this physical attack, gaps will open up on the flanks of the field, allowing Wales’ muscular wingers to finish the job. Such has been the success of this game-plan (i.e. it’s won championships, Grand Slams and a Lions Tour) most were agreed that the tactics would not change. Instead, the sentiment was ‘Ireland will know exactly what’s coming at them. It’s up to them to stop it’.
And how they did stop it! ‘Suffocation’ was how one report described it, and it’s hard to disagree. Through their astute and impeccably carried-out 10 man game of kick chases and driving mauls, Ireland nullified the Welsh. We’d also have to acknowledge that Sam Warburton’s side did not do themselves any favours by conceding too many penalties and making far too many mistakes. That said, the win was first-and-foremost down to the tactics of Joe Schmidt and his Ireland charges. They had stopped ‘Warrenball’.
Understandably, the aftermath of what was an unusually heavy defeat has focused on the Welsh lack of a ‘Plan B’. Many have commented on how, having seen his side’s usual tactics blunted by the opposition, Gatland should have changed tack by bringing some more creativity off the bench (James Hook, Justin Tipuric for example) or, at the very least, the players should have been prepared to adopt a secondary game plan when things went wrong. So did Wales require a Plan B in Dublin? Well ‘no’ accordingly to Head Coach Gatland himself. In his opinion, ‘Plan A’ wasn’t executed well enough. His argument is that had his players executed the agreed game-plan properly (instead of conceding penalties and making unforced errors) the Welsh would have been much more competitive.
Gatland may well be right. Saturday’s defeat could well be put down to a ‘bad day in the office’ by the Welsh players (many of whom looked undercooked) rather than poor tactics. But I think there’s reason to suggest otherwise. There’s no doubt that ‘Warrenball’ has been successful in recent times and most teams in the world would find it hard to deal with. But the game’s best sides (i.e. the southern hemisphere giants) have consistently prevailed against this tactic. The worry would now be that the northern hemisphere’s best sides have started to successfully counter-act this previously irresistible method of play. This year’s remaining Six Nations games will tell us a lot in this regard. Of course Wales may still win the tournament (however unlikely that seems after the disaster in Dublin) and ‘Warrenball’ may yet prevail again, but Wales should view this most recent loss as an opportunity to address a concern that has persisted in the minds of Welsh supporters for a while: are we ‘one-trick ponies’?
If Wales are to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup they will need to vary their game, especially against the likes of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Gatland knows this, stressing that his side are trying to play in different ways for different games. The nature of the Ireland loss may well be a blessing in disguise for the development of this young Welsh team as they aim for World Cup glory but the lessons must be learnt in defeat. To win a few more games and then plough on regardless would be short-sighted.
If Ireland have taught us anything this week it’s this: there’s more than one way to win a rugby match.