It’s a huge challenge but Ireland have the individual talent to shred Welsh hopes
Ireland get a taste of the Millennium Stadium yesterday before today's opener for the Six Nations Championship. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
RUGBY:Come 3.15pm or thereabouts on the first Saturday of the championship, the Grand Slam and Triple Crown hopes of at least one of these teams will have been shredded. Even ambitions of the title will have been seriously imperilled, with the loser either hosting England or facing a trek to France.
Talk about having to hit the ground running.
Unlike the occasional defeat to Wales in recent times, when leaving the Aviva Stadium on the corresponding opener last season, and coming hard on the heels of the World Cup quarter-final defeat, for the first time one was inclined to accept that despite another controversial late decision, Wales were now simply better.
There was an authority about the way the Red Dragonhood wrested the win which was almost France-like in its swagger.
But in the autumn, while Ireland provided strong evidence of turning a corner, Wales’ losing run continued; they are again without their head coach Warren Gatland and have been hit by a secondrow injury crisis as well as losing their outhalf.
Yet, today, not only do Wales pitch up with 10 of the starting XV from last year’s game (Ireland have nine), they have 12 of the team which beat France here last March to clinch their third Grand Slam in eight years.
“We know that we’re up against it,” said Declan Kidney at Ireland’s eve-of-match press conference in the ground yesterday, after confirming the stadium room would be open.
“Wales have some colossal men. We’re up against a team that know how to win, the amount of experience they have from one to 15 is grossly different from ours. I know there’s been a good story about the injuries they’ve had, but when you match them up as Jamie [Heaslip] said they’re pretty much par for the course. Look, it’s a just a huge challenge really.”
The margin between the sides in four of the last six meetings has been two, six, two and four points and yesterday the Welsh defensive coach Shaun Edwards said this would most likely be another one-score game between two evenly-matched teams.
Kidney concurred. “Certainly the history of it has shown that it’s like that. The drama in the last five minutes of Ireland-Welsh matches over the years has been the thing for TV, hasn’t it? Maybe that’s why we’re first up, to get the competition up and going.”
In any event, Ireland will assuredly have to play from the first to the 80th minute. While last year’s Welsh comeback underlined the latter, Kidney cited the World Cup quarter-final as evidence of Wales’ ability to drill a team back with their long-kicking game if they go 10 points ahead.
Given the possible brittleness of Welsh confidence, and how with one bound or an early score or two, they could break free, the importance of the start to the first game of the championship could be even more critical than normal. Indeed, the championship prognosis for these two could be exposed by 2pm or thereabouts.
Ultimately, though, while the teams look evenly matched, there are far more question marks concerning the Welsh players individually as well as collectively.
None of the frontrow, even Adam Jones, appears the force of yore, whereas that cannot be said of the Irish trio and unless something untoward happens Mike Ross it would be a surprise if the scrum is troubled.
Ditto the lineouts, and while Ian Evans is a fine player, he hasn’t played since mid-November whereas another strong 80 can be anticipated from Donnacha Ryan. In the backrow Heaslip is liable to have a bigger influence than the occasional flashes from Toby Felatau, and while the Welsh have countered Seán O’Brien’s carrying better than anyone and Sam Warburton, a true breakdown specialist, may be inspired by the occasion, the Irish have as much ballast.
Whereas Conor Murray has matured into a Test operator this season, Mike Phillips’ form has also wavered. Dan Biggar is a talented player but Jonny Sexton is on a different level.
The same imbalance exists physically in the backline as last year, but Ireland’s defence operates better with Brian O’Driscoll at the helm, and Ireland will assuredly learn from the costly passivity of last year.
There are doubts about Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo defensively, but even Edwards spoke yesterday of the attacking threat they provide, all the more so if feeding off Sexton and O’Driscoll taking the ball to the line, or Rob Kearney hitting the line.
While taking on and overpowering the Welsh pack is very important, history has also shown us that Ireland cannot be one-dimensional. If Ireland play to their abilities, and are as smart about attacking space and going wide as they were against Argentina, they’ve every chance.
Rob Kearney (Leinster)
Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster)
Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster)
Simon Zebo (Munster)
Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
Conor Murray (Munster)
Cian Healy (Leinster)
Rory Best (Ulster)
Mike Ross (Leinster)
Mike McCarthy (Connacht)
Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
Sean O’Brien (Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Leinster, c)
Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), D Fitzpatrick (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), F McFadden (Leinster).
(Blues) Leigh Halfpenny
(Scarlets) George North
(Scarlets) Jonathan Davies
(Blues) Jamie Roberts
(Blues) Alex Cuthbert
(Ospreys) Dan Biggar
(Bayonne) Mike Phillips
(Toulon) Gethin Jenkins
(Scarlets) Matthew Rees
(Ospreys) Adam Jones
(Ospreys) Ian Evans
(Dragons) Andrew Coombs
(Scarlets) Aaron Shingler
(Blues, c) Sam Warburton
(Dragons) Toby Faletau
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), P James (Bath), C Mitchell (Exeter), O Kohn (Harlequins), J Tipuric (Ospreys), L Williams (Cardiff), J Hook (Perpignan), S Williams (Scarlets)