Legendary Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll admitted last week that this year’s Six Nations could be his last, and having spent the last few seasons plagued with injuries, many wondered whether or not the great man still had it. Despite losing the captaincy to No8 Jamie Heaslip, O’Driscoll responded in scintillating style. Not only did he score, create Simon Zebo’s try as well as marshalling the midfield with aplomb, he inspired his countrymen to hold out for a vital victory. The partnership he enjoys with fellow veteran Gordon D’Arcy has stood the test of time but it will face a stern examination next week against England. But if he plays like he did against the Welsh, then he could easily decide the game. His display was a timely reminder of his enduring class as he showed British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland that on his day, there are no other centres in his league. His experience and ability will be of huge benefit to the Lions touring party and it would represent a fitting end to a stellar career if he could sign off with a telling contribution to a first successful Lions tour in 16 years.
Despite coming into this Six Nations campaign as reigning champions, Wales started the match as underdogs due to their disastrous form ever since. They had lost their last seven Tests, and despite having a starting line-up full of talent such as Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts, Gethin Jenkins and Leigh Halfpenny, their miserable form continued. They were simply blown away by the Irish in the first half, and despite a second half comeback, they fell just short. There has been much debate as to why this slump has occurred, with factors such as the talent exodus out of Wales, the absence of head coach Gatland on Lions duty, loss of form from major players and a crippling injury list all playing a part. Injuries in particular have been a real problem as Wales haven’t been able to field a consistent XV for some time. In particular, the debuts of lock’s Andrew Coombs and Olly Kohn, who are 28 and 31 respectively, shows how badly depleted the Welsh options are currently. With a difficult trip to France next week, Wales will be travelling with damage limitation in mind rather than the expansive mind-set that won them so many fans in the 2011 World Cup.
Ireland were undoubtedly inspired by the return of their talisman in O’Driscoll, and with players such as Zebo continuing to impress – flicked pick up a particular highlight – they stormed into a 30-3 lead. In contrast, Wales seemed to let the pressure get to them and aided the Irish with sloppy errors. This was abundantly clear for Cian Healy’s try, with fly-half Dan Biggar’s lazy kick being charged down by Rory Best and the turnover resulted in the powerful prop going over from close range. It was only after they conceded a third try early in the second half that the Welsh seemed to begin playing. Perhaps it was the fact that the burden of pressure was eased at such a daunting score-line, but they found some of their swagger and attacked the Irish to great effect. Scores from Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny and Craig Mitchell were the result of Wales keeping possession and stringing a few phases together. It made the scoreboard much better viewing but it was a case of too little too late as the Irish held on despite losing hooker Best to the sin bin. Both sides need to put together more complete performances if they have any aspirations of winning the competition, but the Irish will feel more confident heading into next week.
With the Lions tour looming large, both teams have players who will be hoping to secure a place on the plane in June. While O’Driscoll stole the show, he was ably aided by the likes of Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Zebo and Best. Sexton is currently favourite for the fly-half slot and his game management against Wales was only aided by the fact O’Driscoll had returned. Having such experience and genius outside him means that Sexton only needs to secure a quick platform to allow his midfield to create that spark needed to create try scoring opportunities. It was evident in both Zebo’s and Healy’s tries as they got the basics right with simple passes and intelligent running lines. The return of Kearney from injury further complicates the battle for the full-back position as his Welsh counterpart Leigh Halfpenny put in a solid showing in a side which is under-performing immensely. With Stuart Hogg, Ben Foden, Alex Goode and even Lee Byrne all harbouring touring aspirations as well, the competition for the No15 shirt is intense. For Wales, aside from Halfpenny, their big stars have continued to look average. Skipper Sam Warburton, for so long a certain tourist, maintained his slump in form but he was not alone. Giant wingers Cuthbert and George North were starved of any real quality ball until too late, while the prop pairing of Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins look shadows of their former selves. The competition for the Lions is fierce and is a fascinating subplot to this year’s tournament.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly