Gordon D’Arcy set to return and hold Ireland’s centre
Partnership with Brian O’Driscoll to be renewed to counter Wales physical backs as Paul O’Connell also set to return
Gordon D’Arcy: the centre gave a superb display against New Zealand in November. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell are set to be recalled in an otherwise unchanged Irish starting XV when the team and replacements are announced at lunchtime today for Saturday’s Six Nations rendezvous with Wales at the Aviva Stadium. As a consequence, Dan Tuohy is expected to revert to the bench.
Presuming O’Connell recovers fully from the chest infection which he contracted overnight before Ireland’s win over Scotland, he was always certain to be recalled to lead the side against Wales. If there was any surprise over the initial preference of Tuohy over his younger and more versatile Ulster teammate Iain Henderson last week, there assuredly won’t be today given Tuohy’s high workrate and aerial skills against the Scots.
For all the fears about O’Connell not being able to lead the side in their Six Nations opener, in hindsight not only was it a relatively good match to miss given Ireland’s 22-point winning margin, it has reduced the playing demands on the 34-year-old skipper in this year’s tournament while assuredly imbuing Tuohy with more belief in an Irish jersey, whatever the number. O’Connell’s return adds to Ireland’s leadership and big-game experience for what is likely to be one of the more seismic collisions in this year’s tournament.
D’Arcy himself was unwell at the start of last week, which Joe Schmidt said was a small contributory factor in the choice of Luke Marshall to partner Brian O’Driscoll last Sunday.
Marshall is a talented all-round footballer with a big future, and he did not play at all badly. Hence, as was the case when Schmidt recalled D’Arcy to face New Zealand last November, after preferring Marshall for the Australian encounter a week earlier, he has seemingly opted for experience, established rapport with O’Driscoll, directness and ability to get over the gain line against the Welsh.
D’Arcy has always been one of Ireland’s most under-rated performers, with relatively rare glitches over the years often being excessively highlighted, and he responded to his recall against the All Blacks with a superb display. He has an intuitive understanding with O’Driscoll with whom he has played 52 Tests as a midfield combination, two more than the previous record holders, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.
D’Arcy’s experience, reading of the game and footwork have enabled him to punch above his defensive weight in midfield – invariably forcing the attacker to make the decision as one former team-mate put it – for many years. Aside from a few glitches in the midfield defence last week, for which O’Driscoll was also culpable when leaving a sizeable gap out wide which the Welsh would be better equipped to exploit, there was a lack of directness until O’Driscoll began doing his impersonation of Kevin Maggs by running hard and straight at the Scottish midfield in the second-half. It gave Ireland more go-forward momentum as a result.
Schmidt may also be mindful that Wales are going to repeatedly come down the 12 and 13 channels even more than Scotland did – O’Driscoll made 14 tackles last week – all the more so given the long-range weather forecast promises little sign of any respite. Jamie Roberts was Wales’ leading carrier last week, his outside-in line at Alberto Sgarbo’s inside shoulder breaking the Italy’s defensive line for Scott Williams’ try, and it would be no surprise to see George North and Alex Cuthbert used more off their wings to truck it up in midfield.
In the immediate aftermath of Northampton’s 18-9 revenge win over Leinster at the Aviva Stadium last December, recovering from a 40-7 defeat at Kingsholm when Leinster were at their vintage, high-tempo, multi-skilled best, the fear always lurked that they had provided a blueprint for taking on a Leinster/Ireland team.
Certainly this Wales outfit, with their huge backline, are both well equipped and inclined anyway to take a leaf out of the Northampton blueprint with a similarly no-frills, ultra-physical, direct approach. A tad more surprisingly, Warren Gatland has stated as much.
“We have not lost away in the Six Nations since March 2011,” Gatland said. “That’s a pretty good record and we are pretty comfortable in this tournament. There is no team we fear and it is good to go away and have the confidence that you can win. If you look at the recent history, this fixture has tended to favour the away side. We have played once at the Aviva and had a win there.
“The bigger the match in recent years the more we have fronted up. Ireland are a tough team who have evolved under their head coach Joe Schmidt and we have to be very direct against them: we this week mentioned how Northampton turned it around after being embarrassed at home. It was a good blueprint of how to play against Ireland: nothing flash, fronting up physically and running hard. They had some big midfielders that day in Luther Burrell and George North and we have some physicality in our back division. Expect us to be direct.”
Ireland probably wouldn’t have expected anything else.
POSSIBLE IRELAND XV (to face Wales): Rob Kearney; Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (capt), Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Marty Moore, Dan Tuohy, Tommy O’Donnell, Isaac Boss, Paddy Jackson, Fergus McFadden.