by Brendan Cole
Ireland finished second in many of the statistical categories against Wales on Saturday, but still ran out convincing winners of a thrilling opening match of the 2013 RBS 6 Nations.
According to the numbers, Wales dominated across several areas, making more metres, completing more passes and winning more rucks.
The home side made 512 metres with ball in hand compared to just 210 for Ireland. They also had more line breaks and tackle busts with 20 to Ireland’s 11, and more offloads with eight to Ireland’s three.
Obviously, the stats don’t show everything – there is no category that can capture the full effect of the likes of Rory Best’s chargedown and catch, Simon Zebo’s brilliant flick or Brian O’Driscoll’s sublime pass.
And it should be noted that a lot Wales’ good play and ground gained happened in the second half, with seven of their eight offloads registered as they desperately chased the game.
But while they had less possession and territory, Ireland laid the groundwork for victory with supreme efficiency backed up by a solid setpiece.
Taking that efficiency first, Ireland scored on six occasions (three tries, three pens) with just 67 successful rucks. Factor in that they received the ball from a kick-off on seven occasions, and the quality of their play once they got into the Welsh half is even more impressive.
Ireland obeyed the 'three second rule' at ruck time
As Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards wrote in The Guardian in November, the ruck has a basic ‘three second rule’. New Zealand, the best rugby team on the planet, complete 60% of their rucks inside the magic number. In November the fifth to eighth placed sides in world rugby, including Ireland and Wales, completed only 30% of theirs inside that time.
All three of Ireland’s tries were directly preceded by rucks of that took less than three seconds and in total, of eight rucks leading up to the three tries, six came in under that three second mark.
Wales were simply unable to reset in time, ending up with their defenders scrambling sideways instead of shooting up quickly to make their tackles behind the gainline.
The ruck over Jonathan Sexton just before the pick and drive sequence in the corner that led to O’Driscoll’s try is a great example.
Once on the ground, the urgency Sexton showed when putting the ball back between his legs, the precision of O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in the clearout and the speed with which Conor Murray swept the ball away added to a 2.6 second clearout that created the opportunity in the corner.
The contrast with the mini-committee meetings between half-back and back-row at each ruck before each carry against the same opposition at RWC 2011 is stark.
Compared to Wellington, Ireland had quality over quantity.
After some wobbles in November, Ireland’s set piece was a key support on Saturday, setting a platform for that attacking quality.
The crucial first try came soon after a dominant scrum and in total, Ireland won 15 out of 18 scrums and lineouts where they had the put in.
The second dimension to the stats is the individual battles and how the opening weekend shook up the battle for places in the Lions squad.
On the Irish side, several players put their names into the conversation for certain positions.
Conor Murray is one. Few saw the Munster scrum-half as a possible contender a few weeks ago but his stock has risen after a highly effective performance with few if any notable errors.
Jonathan Sexton gave a performance of the level we have to expect, nailing his kicks and playing a key role in creating the situations for the Simon Zebo and O’Driscoll tries. In fact, both Irish half-backs were virtually mistake-free.
Triumphant outing for Brian O'Driscoll
And Simon Zebo also put his name forward, looking the part when nonchalantly running in his try. The combination of easy speed and intelligence needed to read O’Driscoll’s intentions and be in the right place to take the pass should not be underestimated.
O’Driscoll is also a big winner after a performance that included the sublime skill of the pass, the sheer desire of the try and an all action selection of hits, turnovers and passes. A triumphant outing that could scarcely have gone better.
In that pack, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy also franked their credentials, with O’Brien making 18 tackles (with two misses) and a team-leading 12 carries, and Healy managing a remarkable 21 tackles from loosehead and a try. Gethin Jenkins claim faded in comparison.
The second row pair of Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan also had a good outing, coming second and third in the tackle count with 18 and 16 respectively and continue to look like an excellent solution to what had become a thorny problem due to Paul O'Connell's injury issues.
Meanwhile, despite getting a yellow card, Rory Best’s eye-catching performance, complete with a smart turnover, a charged kick and a solid outing at the scrum and lineout, will have done his credentials no harm.
For Wales, some big reputations took heavy knocks.
Given his relatively low impact on the game, it is strange to see George North pop up as their top ball carrier with 96 metres and the third highest in terms of carries (14). There were no big plays of the calibre of his spectacular line bust and offload to set up Jon Davies’ try last year.
Outside centre Davies also had a day to forget, slinging two routine passes into touch and getting flummoxed by O'Driscoll for Zebo's try.
Phillips and Warburton the biggest Lions losers
But Lions captaincy candidate Warburton probably had the most damaging outing of all, getting overwhelmed by the Irish clearout and contributing little as an attacking force during Wales resurgence in the second half. Replacement Justin Tipuric easily outshone him in that period.
Mike Phillips was another loser. Wales were unable to match Ireland’s urgency and the scrum-half was the first Welshman to be withdrawn from the contest (63rd minute).
It is interesting to recall caretaker coach Rob Howley’s comments on the need for his scrumhalf to get up to a higher gear than he may have been used to in French rugby.
Number eight Toby Faletau was one of the few Welsh positives, topping their carrying stats with 20 and equalling Warburton’s tackle count with 11. The big number eight’s surge through the Irish back row to the base of the Irish posts was a rare attacking highlight for Wales.
None of that is of much concern for Ireland, who move on in rude health having put flesh to the bones of Declan Kidney’s claim that something new and exciting had emerged in November.