A tale of two tackles
February 5, 2012
Wales' George North celebrates his side's victory at the Aviva Stadium © Getty Images
This year's Six Nations exploded into life at the third time of asking at the Aviva Stadium where Wales and Ireland played out one of the most thrilling Championship clashes in recent memory.
France and Italy did their best in Paris and England's clash with Scotland in Edinburgh had its moments but neither game came anywhere near the epic contest served up by these two sides in the latest instalment of an increasingly-intense rivalry. We should not be too surprised given their habit of serving up drama and top class rugby in equal measure with the thriller in 2003, the Grand Slam decider in 2009 and last year's Six Nations clash just three relatively recent examples of what they can produce when they are in the mood. The latter of those games was marred by a high-profile shocker from the officials and it is disappointing to have to report that once again the referee, in this case Wayne Barnes, and his assistant, Dave Pearson, conspired to tarnish what was otherwise an enthralling advert for the game.
Put simply - they got a major call wrong. This was not a TMO call that could have gone either way like that which occurred during Saturday's stop-start affair at Murrayfield, but a clear error on the most high-profile of stages. Wales' Bradley Davies took offence to some rough-housing from Ireland's Donnacha Ryan and responded by up-ending his rival and dropping him on his head with the ball having long gone. All this played out under the nose of Pearson who wasted little time in flagging the foul play to Barnes who was quick to say he had seen nothing having followed the ball to the next phase. No-one expected the Welshman to play any further part in the game with the tip-tackle somewhat worse than that which had seen Wales captain Sam Warburton red carded during their World Cup semi-final loss to France - and let us not forget that the ball was not even part of this ugly incident as it was in New Zealand when France's Vincent Clerc was thumped into the turf. It was a clear case of off-the-ball brutality - a red-card offence if ever there was one. A no-brainer surely? Apparently no.
Pearson's recommendation was a yellow card and in one careless stroke he had reduced the sport to laughing stock once again. As a result Davies was able to return to the fray in the closing minutes and was on the field as Wales conjured a dramatic late turnaround but the recriminations of the officials' error will stretch beyond this game with it likely to have a large say in not only the destiny of this year's Six Nations but maybe also the identity of the next British & Irish Lions coach who will be named later this year. But they were not done there with another dubious tip-tackle call on Ireland's Stephen Ferris, punished harshly and arguably incorrectly by Barnes who then handed Wales a match-winning opportunity which they duly took. Wales coach Warren Gatland, a clear contender for that Lions honour, was happy to ride his luck and admit the officials got it wrong while Ireland boss Declan Kidney, another possible Lions candidate, refused to point the finger and instead hoped for an apology similar to the one they were offered last year. You felt for both men and those fans incensed by the decision, all let down by the game they love.
But try as they might, the officials could not completely overshadow a battling display by Wales who claimed a deserved victory thanks largely to the efforts of one giant of the game. You have to remind yourself that George North is still only 19-years-old and has just a little over a year's worth of Test match rugby to his name. A certain Jonah Lomu was 20-years-old when he announced himself as a global star during the 1995 World Cup and so North appears ahead of his Kiwi predecessor when it comes to career curves but only time will tell if he reaches the same heights. But why wouldn't he if he is able to stay injury-free and at the same time produce the kind of dazzling form on show in Dublin?
Team-mate Rhys Priestland had set the bar high with a superb off-load to put centre Jonathan Davies in for his first score but North was on a different level again with an awe-inspiring mix of power, pace and skill that proved too much for the Irish defence with one huge hit on Ireland's Fergus McFadden - attempting to fill the boots of Brian O'Driscoll - sure to make highlight reels around the world with the centre sent sprawling for attempting to derail the train that is Wales' most potent weapon. But he can take comfort from the fact that he will not be the last to be tormented by the winger. Somehow scrum-half Mike Phillips pipped him to the man of the match honour, but we all know who the standout performer was in this game.
Ireland's Stephen Ferris reflects on his sin-binning © Getty Images
It was not all rosy for Wales. They failed to capitalise on large amounts of possession and a territorial advantage while the clear discipline issues, mis-firing lineout and some question marks over Priestland's kicking game more than enough to keep Gatland busy between now and their meeting with Scotland on Sunday. Add in yet another injury concern in the form of skipper Sam Warburton and a likely suspension for Davies and there is due cause for concern but those will be negated somewhat by the prospect of three of their next four games coming at the Millennium Stadium.
North's display underlined his side's superior creativity and with the game in the balance you always sensed that Wales' faith in their own ability and willingness to chase the game would bring them reward. In contrast, Ireland looked a little fragile of mind and body and their Grand Slam and Triple Crown hopes were dashed by a side that had not win in Dublin since their clean sweep in 2008. They may have cried foul at the officiating but could have little argument about the end result.
You sense North and co would not have had as much joy had O'Driscoll been at the heart of Ireland's defensive effort but looking long-term it is a eventuality they need to learn to live with and adjust accordingly - defensive frailty will strike at the heart of any side intending to challenge for glory.
The Irish forwards toiled admirably but despite playing in front of a capacity home crowd and fielding many of those that have propelled their provinces to great things this season, they came off second best. Even when the game had been all but won, against the odds, they lacked the belief to get the job done. Not even the presence of veteran Paul O'Connell, Rory Best and Ronan O'Gara could get them over the line but that probably says more about an increasingly assured Wales than an Ireland side in danger of being left in the wake of their free-flowing rivals.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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