A resurgent Wales put to bed any hopes of an Irish Championship in this year’s Six Nations, as Rob Howley’s men delivered an emphatic and relieving win in Cardiff Friday night. The 22-9 scoreline robbed Ireland of even a losing bonus point, and Joe Schmidt’s side will feel bitter in the manner in which they underperformed.

Despite being poor, Ireland still could have won that match. If Robbie Henshaw doesn’t join that maul, it’s likely a try for Rory Best & Ireland maybe get out of jail free. We would instead be talking about a disappointing performance but an important win. Without that win to mask it however, it’s all the more damning.

Big Names, Big Games

Both teams were under pressure heading into the game. Ireland weren’t entirely convincing against France, and Wales were under a far more intense scrutiny after their loss to Scotland. Massive questions were raised about a number of players on the pitch, and while Wales’ big names stepped up & performed, Ireland’s didn’t.

Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best are Ireland’s packleaders, and they didn’t impose themselves on the game in their usual influential manner. Sean O’Brien & CJ Stander were bested by their opposite numbers, as Warburton & Tupuric excelled. Conor Murray went off injured (eventually), and Ireland’s backline failed to pose any serious threat or danger.

Johnny Sexton’s yellow card was a crucial turning point in the game. It came at a key moment, and Ireland ultimately never recovered from the try George North scored in his absence. Wayne Barnes refusal to hand a yellow card Wales’ way is something Ireland can feel aggrieved about, but in all honesty, it’s probably the only thing they can be aggrieved about from a refereeing point of view.

One of the main criticisms of Wales’ failings over the last number of weeks has been their senior figures failing to perform to the high levels expected of them – that’s now the uncomfortable position some of Ireland’s key names find themselves in.

The Replacements

When Ireland won back to back Six Nations Championships in 2014/15, the bench was a major feature of their success. It was reflective of the times, and the evolving nature of a substitute – no longer a last resort or back-up plan, but a tactical adjustment to ensure an 80 minute performance.

In Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin & Marty Moore Ireland could rely on an excellent front-row combination, one that would certainly drive the starting trio onto the next level. The power of Iain Henderson, the speed of Eoin Reddan & Ian Madigan in pivotal half-back positions – Joe Schmidt tailored his matchday 23, and the result was (mostly) successful.

Fast forward to 2017, and Ireland have regressed. Schmidt doesn’t seem to have that same faith or confidence in his bench, and it was telling against Wales. Conor Murray may be Ireland’s most important player, but if he can’t pass the ball, his importance means very little. Murray carried on clearly injured after half-time, before being called ashore for Kieran Marmion, who made a difference with his crisp delivery.

Rory Best is one of Ireland’s most consistent performers, but Friday evening was one of his more forgettable days out. Lineout struggles, dropped balls; his leadership suffered as a result of the pressures across his shoulders and it just wasn’t going his way. One of those days.

But rather than replace him, our 34 year old out of sorts hooker still carried on until the 79th minute before making way for Niall Scannell. Scannell may be inexperienced but he’s not going to get any experience if he sits on the bench during games like that. John Ryan & Tommy Bowe also entered the fray on the 79th minute when the game was lost – what’s the point?

Joe Schmidt identified one clear area to strengthen after Ireland’s 2015 World Cup heartbreak – depth. Can we honestly say we’ve built depth in the year and a half since? A bucket of new caps against Canada makes for good reading, but in an intense test game when it matters, our bench was a last resort.

Attacking Nous

Our lack of tries/points scored against France was a concern coming into the Wales game, and it’s not the first time Ireland’s clinical edge has come under question. All our possession means very little if it’s not reflected on the scoreboard, and it’s gone from a concern to worrying after proceedings in Cardiff.

The Welsh defence ate up green jersey after green jersey, but rarely seemed to be struggling to contain Ireland’s attack. Sexton’s loop play played straight into Wales’ arms and Irish efforts were predictable thereafter. George North & Leigh Halfpenny were poor under the high ball where Rob Kearney reigned supreme, but we didn’t exploit it as much as expected considering our line-breaking difficulties.

Ireland have an excellent conversion rate from scoring off 5 metre lineouts, so the flailing lineout did our attacking platform no favours – Alun Wyn Jones’ crucial rob was a painful ego blow, while the Welsh backrow expertly slowed down Ireland’s ball.

Ultimately, Jamie Roberts’ chargedown try at the death of the game speaks volumes about Ireland’s attack on the day. With the clock running out of the time, you’d imagine the only thing on Ireland’s mind is keeping the ball alive and in hand – you can’t win the game without the ball. But unable to find a way through the Welsh line, Sexton went for broke with his kick. Obviously it backfired, but the choice to kick in the first place is indicative of Ireland’s attacking woes.

Where to Now?

Joe Schmidt is not a coach for knee jerk reactions, and that much will not change. Two losses from four games in the most competitive Six Nations ever is a statistic we can live with, and we were beaten by a better team in an excellent game of rugby that we could have won. But, that doesn’t hide the cracks that have started to appear across Ireland’s performances.

An easy fix but difficult call is the restoration of Peter O’Mahony to the starting XV. He was sorely missed against Wales both in the lineout, and as a leader amongst the pack. Joe Schmidt needs to find room for him somewhere in that back-row combination, which is no easy task. None of Stander, O’Brien or Heaslip are easy to drop, but that trio of players will not bring out the best in each other against top level opposition. All wonderful players, but without the right balance and flexibility.

Whether it’s Sexton or Jackson at fly-half, there is a lack of creativity amongst the backs. Part of that problem is Robbie Henshaw – not in Henshaw himself, but rather in the way he plays. He has a wide and varied skillset, so why are we using him as a glorified Jamie Roberts? He has much more to his arsenal than just running a crash ball, and it would be nice to see that in the green jersey.

Garry Ringrose is still adjusting to the trials and tribulations of international rugby, and he didn’t bring that x-factor he possesses against Wales. But, bringing Jared Payne back in his place will not do that either. Payne is an incredibly skilled talent, but for everything he adds to that Irish midfield, creativity is not one of them.

Rob Kearney is the man you feel is the one who must make way, despite having one of his better games against Wales. Seeking contact upon collection or kicking the ball away, he doesn’t lead counter attacks particularly well ball in hand. With Simon Zebo or Jared Payne at 15 you have a playmaker who adds that unpredictability or spark running from deep. It also adds another option at first receiver, switching up the point of attack and creating more options during phase play.

It’s unlikely we can expect wholesale changes when Ireland line-up to face England, but one or two key changes may breathe some fresh air into an Irish team that have flattered to deceive in this year’s Six Nations.