Victory will taste very sweet for Warren Gatland when he gathers his coaching staff together for a “long afternoon” of celebration tomorrow.
The post-match review that had been scheduled was cancelled straight after Saturday’s final whistle as the champagne corks popped in Principality Stadium and Wales celebrated a 2019 Grand Slam in front of their nearly delirious supporters.
No one minded the spray of bubbly. After all, they had been drenched all afternoon given Ireland’s insistence on keeping the stadium roof open to the elements as the rain fell throughout a game that had become the zenith in the career of Welsh head coach Gatland in his final Guinness Six Nations match.
A third Grand Slam in 11 years made Gatty the championship’s most successful coach, lifted Wales above sorry Ireland into second in the world rankings and will put a spring in their step for the summer as they build optimistically towards the New Zealander’s swansong as Welsh boss at the World Cup in Japan.
Gatland and company will deserve their afternoon off. Their Slam may not have been as majestic as Ireland’s 12 months earlier, although a narrow escape with victory in Paris on the opening night was a constant for both teams.
What will serve as another contrast, however, will be the post-mortem taking place on this side of the water this week and beyond. While the Welsh coaches sit back and relax to reflect on a job well done, Joe Schmidt on Saturday night outlined a timetable of rigorous analysis as to how he, his management group and players got things so badly wrong in Cardiff but also figure out a way to get this squad back on track heading towards their World Cup pool kick-off against Scotland on September 22 in Yokohama.
“I think for us, it will be about heading off to the provinces, dusting themselves off, getting some confidence through their provincial performances which are usually of a very high standard and then we will get back together,” Schmidt said on Saturday evening.
“It is pretty hard to contextualise everything in terms of one game. I know what it was like going to Twickenham last year (for the Grand Slam game against England) and how energised the whole group felt then when we got that early try and then on the back of that we built that first-half lead. It was impossible for a good England team to get back into the game.
“We are a good Ireland team and we will be good and … I would just ask the people, keep the faith with the team because we will remain competitive at the top level.
“I know it is a long way off for us to get the opportunity to demonstrate that but we will try to build a rhythm and clarify exactly who we will need in the group and progress from there.”
All well and good but not before a stream of mitigating circumstances to explain away perhaps the most disappointing performance of the last six years under Schmidt.
A leaked team, a bug that laid low two unnamed players for some of last week, a couple of dodgy refereeing decisions and perhaps, just perhaps, a wrong call in insisting the stadium roof remain open.
Yet none of that adds up to a desperately poor collective performance in the persistent rain witnessed by thousands of travelling Irish supporters in Cardiff on Saturday. Another poor start and kick-off receipt that led to Hadleigh Parkes’ opening try just 70 seconds after the first whistle. A malfunctioning lineout and below-par scrummaging effort. Terrible discipline in the concession of numerous penalties that allowed man-of-the-match Gareth Anscombe to keep the scoreboard ticking over steadily and Wales to build a 16-0 half-time lead that was 25-0 on 69 minutes.
Wales were already high-fiving, their supporters making merry, when replacement Jordan Larmour finally got Ireland over the tryline in overtime, thus mercifully avoiding a first Six Nations blank. Like Schmidt’s team 12 months ago at Twickenham, Gatland’s men had embraced the pressure of standing on the brink of history and not been found wanting as they racked up a 14th consecutive Test victory.
Where this leaves Ireland now, aside from replaced by the Welsh as the second-ranked team in the world, is the thing that will occupy Schmidt in the coming weeks and months as he plans his preparations and hones his selection for the 31-player squad he must take to Japan in the autumn.
He has never had to use as many players as the 36 he used in this campaign and adding further anxiety will be the poor form of his star half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton and other veteran squad members such as Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien. All four are still a long way short of their best as they continue their comebacks from injury and must now, after the encouragement of the display against France was undone in Wales, look to rebuild their respective games in provincial colours.
For time is running out. Just four summer warm-up Tests, against Italy, England and Wales, twice, separate Ireland from that Pool opener against the Scots and the momentum that was seen within the camp as a vital springboard to the World Cup has been halted spectacularly in the Cardiff rain.
As Schmidt rightly pointed out, Ireland remain a very good Test outfit, one that has won 23 of its last 26 Tests.
Yet there are more questions now than at any point in his tenure and the clock is ticking.
L Williams; G North (D Biggar, 9), J Davies, H Parkes (O Watkin, 70), J Adams; G Anscombe, G Davies (A Davies, 56); R Evans (N Smith, 52), K Owens (E Dee, 60), T Francis (D Lewis, 52); A Beard (J Ball, 70), AW Jones - captain; J Navidi, J Tipuric, R Moriarty (A Wainwright, 70).
R Kearney (J Larmour, 65); K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carty, 73), C Murray (K Marmion, 70); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 58), R Best - captain (N Scannell, 65), T Furlong (A Porter, 65); T Beirne (Q Roux, 58); James Ryan; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (J Conan, 50), CJ Stander.
Angus Gardner (Australia)