Doubt in Thomas punished

Ireland 30 Wales 17; Geoghegan, Woods, Tries Evans 2 Fulcher, Corkery Mason 2 Conversions Thomas 2 Mason 2 Penalties Thomas
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The Independent Online
Ireland gave their season the kiss of life while tearing the heart out of Arwel Thomas. Ireland surpassed their previous highest score against Wales and, indeed, surpassed every other expectation on the back, literally, of the vulnerable Thomas.

The artful dodger took such a hammering early on he didn't know what day it was. A boxing referee would have placed a sympathetic arm around his shoulders and saved him from further punishment. "My legs gave way and I felt punch drunk, like a boxer," Thomas said. "I didn't know where I was. I was very disappointed with my performance." There were extenuating circumstances.

Following a sickening defeat, Thomas was sick in the dressing- room. The beginning of the end for Wales came in the eighth minute when Thomas found Simon Mason instead of finding touch and the Orrell full-back put up a high ball. Thomas caught it and was hit by a high tackle from Mason; when he went down he was then raked by half the Irish pack and it was like watching a rag doll being trampled by a wild herd. Thomas staggered to his feet, his legs barely supporting him, in time to see Simon Geoghegan score from David Humphreys' chip.

Welcome to Lansdowne Road. Wales now had a doubting Thomas at stand-off instead of an impudent play-maker and the lack of experience, at every level, was cruelly exposed. Thomas should have been taken off. At the very least he should have received treatment. At half-time they shone a torch in his eyes and decided he was fit to continue even though the light had clearly gone out. "I only started to feel right in the final quarter," Thomas said. Not so long ago he was playing schools rugby and would hardly have felt a stud on his back.

Ireland, who reverted to their more traditional style, stand between England and the Triple Crown and they travel to Twickenham with a semblance of a smile returning to eyes that were thoroughly blackened by France in Paris. "We had a lot to prove and we responded to the challenge," Niall Hogan, the new captain, said. "We didn't go in fearing Wales, as opposed to the match in Paris."

Once they had effectively taken Thomas out, Ireland's task was made considerably easier and their pack, although beaten in the line-out, were stronger and more aggressive in every other phase. They were quicker to the rucks and mauls and Wales, facing a whitewash against the French in Cardiff, will have to make changes to the front and back rows.

The real test, though, of Kevin Bowring's daring philosophy of 15-man rugby is in his selection of the stand-off. Does he keep faith with Thomas or does he recall Neil Jenkins, thereby risking a further, possibly fatal, erosion of the young Bristol player's confidence? "I know I'll get the blame," Thomas said, "but the criticism won't break me. I'm always a target because I'm looked on as a weak link in defence."

John Mitchell, assistant to the Ireland coach, Murray Kidd, admitted: "Getting to Arwel Thomas was a priority. I don't think his defence had ever been properly tested. Putting him under pressure was a big part of our game plan and we wanted guys like Costello and Corkery to run at him."

Such a policy would hardly have come as a surprise to Wales and Thomas was entitled to better protection from those around him as well as from the referee. Having lost his senses, Thomas contributed to Ireland's second try when he again failed to find touch and Niall Woods, with a chip and an acrobatic catch, responded brilliantly. But still nobody in the Wales camp seemed to appreciate the extent to which Thomas had been hurt. They asked him to take kicks at goal and with every wretched miss his game deteriorated further.

Outside him Wales had the most penetrative threequarter on the field in Leigh Davies. Virtually every time he touched the ball he made ground. His break created Ieuan Evans's first try and he also had a crucial hand in the second. This was easily the try of the match, a flowing testimony to Bowring's vision. However, Ireland, their lead cut to 18- 17, raised the tempo through their forwards and Hogan's half-break put in Gabriel Fulcher.

The Welsh front row came under increasing pressure and were close to disarray when Costello drove from a scrum (it was poor old Thomas who had to tackle the No 8) and Corkery finished it off. Ireland's previous highest score against Wales came in their 24-23 victory in the World Cup in Johannesburg last summer. "I'm relieved rather than overwhelmed," Pat Whelan, the manager, said. "There were a lot of flaws but at least we're a bit further along the road in our preparation for England."

Bowring said: "Ireland dug very deep. We came to play handball and failed to finish it off. There are some very disappointed young men. They've learnt a bitter lesson. When you play a handling game your mistakes become very public. They've learnt about the pressure of international rugby."

In the team coach leaving Lansdowne Road, Neil Jenkins sat next to Thomas and attempted to console the inconsolable.

IRELAND: S Mason (Orrell); S Geoghegan (Bath), J Bell (Northampton), M Field (Malone), N Woods (Blackrock College); D Humphreys (London Irish), N Hogan (Terenure College); N Popplewell (Newcastle), A Clarke (Northampton), P Wallace (Blackrock College), G Fulcher (Cork Constitution), J Davidson (Dungannon), D Corkery (Cork Constitution), V Costello (St Mary's College), D McBride (Malone).

WALES: J Thomas (Llanelli); I Evans (Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), N Davies (Llanelli), W Proctor (Llanelli); A Thomas (Bristol), R Howley (Bridgend); A Lewis (Cardiff), J Humphreys (Cardiff), J Davies (Neath), G O Llewellyn (Neath), D Jones (Cardiff), E Lewis (Cardiff), H Taylor (Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli).

Referee: D Mene (France).