Andrew Coombs shines but misery goes on for Wales
Wales 22 Ireland 30
TEST rugby was a venture into the unknown for Andrew Coombs on Saturday, in the end it left the Newport Gwent Dragons star with a familiar feeling.
Wales Six Nations opener against Ireland mirrored the type of rugby that those of us in this neck of the woods are used to.
Plucky, brave, plenty of positives to take forward, but beaten and left with no points and plenty of regrets.
The story of the Dragons’ season was performed at the Millennium Stadium rather than Rodney Parade.
“To come back from 30-3 to where we were, it reminded me of the game against Scotland here a few years ago,” said interim head coach Rob Howley after the game.
Apart from, crucially, the result in 2010 when 17 points in the final few minutes snatched a remarkable win.
Little infuriates more than hearing ‘if only we’d started better’, as though it’s a small facet of the game.
Hey, Bolt, my last 10 metres was quicker than yours. Hey, Calzaghe, I sneaked round 12. Hey, Vettel, I recorded the fastest lap.
The Wales fightback helped make it a marvellous game full of entertainment but it was still an encounter that was pretty much over from the moment when Jonny Sexton made it 20-0 with a penalty in the 29th minute.
From then on Wales were playing for pride and to avoid the ignominy of an absolute pummelling; the Grand Slam and Triple Crown were long gone.
Leading the charge was Coombs, who produced a performance to delight everyone who has watched his journey from semi-pro to Test player.
It was never in doubt that the Dragons man would give his all but there remained a slight nugget of fear about him making the leap to the international stage. Countless people were sitting, fingers crossed, thinking ‘just do yourself proud, Coombsy, just do yourself proud’.
The 28-year-old made such concerns seem ridiculous with a performance of energy and commitment but also class, with some lovely handling mixed in with the honest toil.
Coombs may not go on to win 20 caps and enjoy Triple Crowns, Grand Slams and World Cups but he has already done himself proud.
Not only that, but there is no danger of him being a one-cap wonder. Injuries led to him getting a call-up but it’s going to be hard to dislodge him from the side.
There were a smattering of other good performances, most notably from Coombs’ regional teammate Toby Faletau in the back row, the incredibly brave and classy full-back Leigh Halfpenny and lock Ian Evans, whose performance belied a man playing his first game since November.
But the likes of Sam Warburton, Matthew Rees, Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert are left sweating on their starts in the Stade de France.
Ryan Jones, absent against Ireland because of a thumb injury, is sure to return but he shouldn’t be the only change after an eighth defeat on the spin.
Players must not be retained on the back of what they did in an admittedly stirring comeback.
By then the damage had been done by tries by Simon Zebo, Cian Healy and Brian O’Driscoll that leave Ireland in great shape.
They may have been wobbling slightly courtesy of scores by Cuthbert and Halfpenny in the second half but time was always against Wales, and the visitors knew that as they lay on the wrong side of rucks and counted down the minutes.
Now Declan Kidney’s side can look forward to what is set to be a humdinger against England in Dublin, win and they will be scenting a Grand Slam.
Wales, meanwhile, face three road trips and an awful lot of problems.
They ended with vim and vigour, looking more of a threat in a broken-up game. But in the first half they were rudderless and lethargic against a far more controlled and switched-on Ireland.
This week we will frequently hear that Wales cannot afford to start so sluggishly in Paris, the clichés will flow about firing from the first whistle and turning the French crowd against their side.
But it would be foolish to think that it’s a mental issue that can be solved by Wales switching on when the clock on the Stade de France away changing-room reads 5.50pm on Saturday.
When Howley was asked in the post-match press conference whether or not the players were buying into his coaching ideas he labelled it a “silly question”.
Yet in the absence of Lions boss Warren Gatland it’s one that plenty of people are asking.
Wales: L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North, D Biggar (J Hook 73), M Phillips (L Williams 63), G Jenkins (P James 38-40, 67), M Rees (K Owens 13-21, 51), A Jones (C Mitchell 73), A Coombs, I Evans (O Kohn 73), A Shingler (J Tipuric 44), S Warburton (captain), T Faletau.
Scorers: tries – A Cuthbert, L Halfpenny, C Mitchell; conversions – L Halfpenny (2); penalty – L Halfpenny
Ireland: R Kearney, C Gilroy, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (K Earls 44), S Zebo (E Reddan 79), J Sexton, C Murray, C Healy (D Kilcoyne 73), R Best, M Ross (D Fitzpatrick 68), M McCarthy (D O'Callaghan 73), D Ryan, P O'Mahony (C Henry 51), S O'Brien, J Heaslip (captain).
Scorers: tries – S Zebo, C Healy, B O'Driscoll; conversions – J Sexton (3); penalties – J Sexton (3)
Yellow cards: R Best, C Murray
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Argus star man: Andrew Coombs