We wanted it (the roof) closed to sample the atmosphere and keep progressing on our journey ...
Andy Farrell on Thursday
There is an unmistakable feeling you get in this stadium as kick-off approaches. From the days when it was the Millennium, to its current incarnation as the Principality, on the big occasions it builds steadily and rolls over you in the same way, and with the same effect.
It boils down to this: there is nowhere else you’d rather be. If working in sport is considered journalism’s toy department, then this is Lego meets Scalextric.
What follows, however, sometimes doesn’t match the tone set by the support band. This instalment had moments of magic — many of them from man-of-the-match Hugo Keenan — but was too lopsided to live up to the preamble.
The consensus called for a thrilling opener to the Six Nations to shift the focus from the bleak background noise in the game across Europe. Instead we got a demolition derby, interrupted by an interval where the dominant side shifted dramatically from bullies to bystanders. Then they put their hobnailed boots on again and waded into a bonus-point win.
It was Ireland’s biggest result here since 2001. Of the four quarters, the away team owned two of them outright, came second in one of the others and then finished strongly in the last. Given the barren look to the landscape in these parts since 2013, that adds up to a blistering start for Andy Farrell.
As for Wales, in our experience it’s not often you get the CEO of a rugby union hopping into the trenches to press the flesh with the hacks, but Nigel Walker — the interim boss in Wales — made use of the opportunity here yesterday to make a point. In case you’ve been buried under a rock lately, you’ll be aware the WRU have come across as delusional in their assessment of what passes for good governance, especially when it comes to respecting its female staff.
“We’ve got to restore credibility in the Welsh Rugby Union,” Walker said, on his lightning walkabout of the press room. “That’s what I’ll be concentrating on for the next four or five months. It has been a long week.”
This won’t have lifted their spirits a lot. Needing to get the home crowd involved in the game, instead they were left looking at their watches and waiting.
In modern rugby speak, you’ll often hear coaches talking about entry points, or the lack of them. For the first 40 minutes, it was like looking at lab rats in red bibs scurrying around a maze, running into walls, searching for the break that would give them the freedom to play.
Typically, that entry point comes on the back of a mistake by the opposition. So, a penalty leads to a lineout launch pad that delivers territory and maybe another penalty or a gap in the defence to allow for more ground gained. All of these little openings were shut down by Ireland.
For example, it was late in the first half when Wales won a scrum call against Andrew Porter, used it to launch a lineout strike for another penalty and, bingo, they were in throwing to a lineout close to the Ireland line. There was a feeling of ‘about bloody time’ from the Welsh fans around us. Coincidentally, it was Porter who killed it off when doing really well to get under Jac Morgan before the flanker could even find a space to score.
When all that started, they were trailing 8-2 on the penalty count. When the half-time whistle went a minute later, that curve had flattened a bit to 9-5 for the away team, but the scoreboard was a statement on the hopelessness of their predicament.
So the turbo start that would have carried Wales up to Scotland next weekend was a splutter. Ireland, mindful of not looking anything like the 2019 model that opened a World Cup year in reverse, are already motoring. Given the late changes to the cast, it was a hugely positive statement on the ability of understudies to shine.
It seems extraordinarily bad luck to lose Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park and Cian Healy to soft-tissue injuries so close to a game. Detail on casualties is never the specialist subject of any professional sports organisation but in this case, it would be interesting to get some clarity on the relationship between training load and the ability to stay upright and available for active service.
As this little scenario played out over the last 24 hours, it was hard not to fast forward to the World Cup in France. Or rather, to rewind to the 2015 version when, coincidentally, a big win against France in the Millennium cost Ireland three marquee names. They didn’t recover.
So, as a marker, as an exercise in shuffling your feet without losing pace, this was Ireland saying they continue to be in very good nick, still ranked the No 1 side in the world.
The selection of Stuart McCloskey ahead of Bundee Aki proved sound. Finlay Bealham did a decent job in the absence of Furlong. Conor Murray was the perfect man for a game plan that involved incremental gains of ground followed by going to the drone to punish Wales. If you have a functional set-piece — Ireland were 100 per cent at the lineout, and its quality was very good — supplemented by a laser kicking game, it shuts out opponents. Wales were frozen out and let back in only to warm their hands before being turfed out in the cold again.
Memories are still fresh of Farrell’s predecessor Joe Schmidt, the man from whom he learned so much, opting to shut the Millennium’s lid and sample the delights of a rainy day in Cardiff in 2019. Roofgate doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Even so, the debate filled a lot of column inches and airspace at the time, and it was a leg up for Wales going for a Grand Slam.
It didn’t get a mention here yesterday. This had nothing to do with the weather, rather it was all about a squad in a groove that will be very hard for anyone to stop. If you accept that Furlong and Gibson-Park are key players for Ireland, and their absence had no negative consequence, then you have to acknowledge the power of the group, and of players like Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan and Caelan Doris to inject something extra to the mix.
Farrell got the atmosphere he wanted and then saw it change only because his side were so ruthless. In the circumstances, that was deeply impressive.