Ireland will have to box clever to take down Wales
Just for once in this crazy fixture, home advantage might actually count
This is it then, the one which Irish players and supporters have bookmarked since the summer. It’s Ireland’s stand-out home fixture against the new auld enemy, the one that looks like defining their season. Boxing analogies have rarely been more apposite and come 2.30 on Saturday afternoon one fancies everyone will be in their seats. For it really will be time to rumble.
Wales have indeed rumbled into town like a heavyweight champion, openly declaring their intention to be direct and physical, not that they are ever much else.
Les Kiss and Jamie Heaslip yesterday repeated the Irish dictum that they are going to have box cleverly – and ferociously.
They’re two grizzled and gnarled sides too with over 1,400 Test caps between them in the starting line-ups alone – Ireland boasting 709 to the 693 of Wales. Wales have a dozen Lions in their XV, Ireland nine.
With familiarity has not actually come contempt, as Heaslip maintained yesterday, but friendships between players and, in some cases, parents, along with a desire for bragging rights. That has come with an edge in a fixture which has rarely been dull, often with wafer-thin margins and one cannot imagine this being any different.
Ireland arguably need to win this one more. Defeat would make the treks to London and Paris more daunting, as well as obliging them to win in both venues. Were Ireland to win though, they would probably go into the final Saturday as one of the contenders for the title.
But nothing will come easy – witness the way Ireland’s 30-3 lead after 45 minutes began to erode last year in the face of a Welsh storm.
Wales will not go away. In contrast to the Irish mentality when it comes to rugby, cockiness suits them, and contributes to them being the most stunningly effective team in the competition when they’ve generated momentum.
The collisions will dictate the breakdown, which in turn will determine which team can play the game and the conditions.
As when facing the All Blacks, Irish carriers will have to seek out glimmers of space or soft shoulders, take the tackle on their terms and so ensure the first and second men in can do their job efficiently, though they’ll have to be in like greased lightning when Dan Lydiate chops and Warburton hoovers.
The breezy forecast along with likely showers beforehand and during, may also heighten the importance of set-pieces.
Neither Gethin Jenkins nor Adam Jones, bedrocks of the Welsh successes in recent years, have been tearing up trees, and here Ireland could have an edge.
Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross will today become the most capped front row combination in the Championship’s history, overtaking the previous record of 15 held by the famed Wales and Pontypool frontrow stalwarts Bobby Windsor, Charlie Faulkner and Graham Price, which has stood for just under 35 years.
Ireland may also have more frontrow impact off the bench.
The Welsh line-out may have lost something with the loss of Ian Evans and now Luke Charteris, whereas Ireland have gained here with the return of Paul O’Connell.
After the breakdown/backrow contest, the other key area will be at half-back. Their respective kicking games will be even more important in the conditions, along with their sniping and physicality around the fringes.
The Welsh think tank have huge time for Conor Murray, and no less than Peter O’Mahony being detailed to watch and snag Mike Phillips as Italy did, it would be no surprise if Lydiate has the same duty on Murray.
Fine player though Rhys Priestland is, Sexton also looks in good nick and has the tactical kicking game to adapt to the conditions. Admittedly, Wales have more bulk and x factor across the three-quarter line and also, of course Leigh Halfpenny’s long-kicking and, bearing in mind the Wayne Barnes factor, his place-kicking.
But there are hints of Halfpenny’s Toulon move affecting his form, and for all George North’s explosive carrying, he did not rule the air last week. The Irish outside three excel in this sphere, and with plenty of ball coming his way, Rob Kearney is in prime nick.
As the team who need it more, Ireland may also want it more. Maybe. And maybe, just for once in this daft fixture, home advantage might also count for something. But it’s liable to go the distance.