Confident Ireland to build on autumnal promise and extend winning run

Wales can never be written off but variety of Irish attack game points to a home victory

Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, 2.15. Live on RTÉ 2 and ITV

So it's back, and with perfect timing. If ever a global calendar comes into being, the Six Nations cannot be moved from its traditional slot. With crowds back for the first time in almost two years, anticipation is high for a vintage version of the best annual tournament in the sport, and which this year kicks off with five of the world's top eight sides.

All five believe they can win the title. France, with Italy first up at home tomorrow and both Ireland (next week) and England, on the final Saturday, also due in Paris, are worthy favourites. Without a title in 11 years, their need is the greatest, especially to give the Fabien Galthie revolution something tangible to celebrate.

Viewed in that light, today’s double header, with the Calcutta Cup to follow, almost seem like title, as well as Grand Slam, eliminators.


Yet the Six Nations rarely complies with its pre-ordained scripts. Wales are its classic example. It says everything about the tournament's unpredictability that the reigning champions are ranked eighth and rated fifth favourites with the bookies.

Then again, Wales were fourth in the betting a year ago and came within a whisker of winning the Grand Slam.

Fittingly perhaps, the 2022 championship kicks off with unquestionably its most fiendishly unpredictable fixture of them all. From 1968 to 1983, there were 11 home wins, one draw and just three away wins. Yet from 1984 to 2001, there were just three home wins and a draw, as against 13 away wins. Cardiff became a happy hunting ground for Ireland, and equally Dublin for Wales.

Then, from 2002 to 2013, there were six home wins and six away wins apiece. Yet since 2013 there hasn’t been one away win.

Wales dominated the 70s, and Ireland the Noughties, but otherwise there’s been no pattern, and even less rhyme or reason. And we really shouldn’t need reminding that sharply contrasting fortunes in Europe rarely counts for much.

"It's everything to them, isn't it?" said Andy Farrell of the national team in Wales. "It's certainly their number one sport, which says it all. The history shows that the Welsh, no matter what happens, whether their backs are against the wall or not, they always grow another leg in the Six Nations and that won't change this time around."

As Wales also showed last year, momentum is key. Only three times in the 22 versions of the Six Nations so far has a team lost on the opening weekend and ultimately won the title, namely France in 2016 after losing in Murrayfield, Wales after a defeat by Ireland at home in 2013 and England, two years ago, when a hard-fought losing bonus point in Paris eventually proved crucial.

Red cards

So many of Ireland-Wales meetings also seem to be on the day; witness Peter O’Mahony’s 14th minute red card in Cardiff on opening day a year ago.

All told there were five red cards and 16 yellow cards last season, record tallies both. There’d only been eight reds in total prior to last year.

The clampdown on hits to the head is for the game’s good and the safety of the players. So it’s perhaps less than ideal that Jaco Peyper only brandished Craig Gilroy with a yellow card for his high hit on the Scarlets’ Thomas Rogers last week, an error underlined by the four-game ban issued to Gilroy yesterday.

Peyper has refereed four Irish games, a win over Argentina here in November 2022, followed by losses to France in Paris in 2016, New Zealand here in November 2016 and England in Twickenham two years ago.

In Paris, Joe Schmidt was annoyed that neither Yoann Maestri’s late hit on Sexton nor Guilhem Guirado’s high tackle on Dave Kearney merited a yellow card. In the All Blacks’ revenge mission two weeks after Chicago, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander all departed inside the first 22 minutes. The latter two suffered concussion from high hits, as did Rob Kearney.

The Munster-bound Malakai Fekitoa was sin-binned for a head-high tackle on Simon Zebo, yet it should have been a red card offence given the ensuing suspension. To add to today’s vagaries, after the recent unseasonal dry weather, the forecast is for a dirty day in Dublin.

"It will be frantic I'm sure early on as a lot of Six Nations are. If there is a bit of rain around, and I'm not sure how strong the wind will be, but often when there's no wind outside and inside the stadium, it's swirling around," said Ireland defence coach Simon Easterby, who reckoned both sides will thus be tested by each other's kicking game, and accentuating the need to "play in the right areas at the right time".

While the wintery conditions might clip the ball-in-hand rugby founded on high-quality passing in the autumn, most of Ireland’s tries emanate initially from their solid setpieces and especially their lineout, and Easterby added: “Usually at a lineout you’ll have a dry ball and by the time it goes to the hooker to the lock and to ‘9’, it’s still dry and hopefully we can certainly get into our attacking game in the right areas of the pitch.”

Cutting edge

He knows as well as anybody that this is a good Welsh team. The emergence of Taine Basham and return of Ellis Jenkins offsets some of their backrow injuries. Their half-backs are classy and they have serious cutting edge, albeit it could be a big ask for Josh Adams in the critical defensive position of '13'.

But Ireland look to have more firepower in the dynamic new breed of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris, and with Tadhg Beirne and others, appear to have more threats over the ball too.

In four of Wales’ seven wins last year the opposition incurred red cards. Three of their tries in the wins over Fiji and Australia were against 13 men.

By contrast, such was the variety of Ireland’s attacking game, creating holes through the middle or getting to the edges when playing flat or out the back with options aplenty, that they scored 19 tries in three autumn victories over 15-man opponents, thus extending their winning sequence to eight.

Home advantage is liable to tell more this season than last too, and so wacky fixture though it can be, it all points to a home win.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Mack Hansen (Connacht); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).

Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Conor Murray (Munster), Joey Carbery (Munster), James Hume (Ulster).

WALES: Liam Williams (Scarlets); Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets), Josh Adams (Cardiff), Nick Tompkins (Saracens), Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester); Dan Biggar (Northampton, capt), Tomos Williams (Cardiff); Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Ryan Elias (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Ospreys); Will Rowlands (Dragons), Adam Beard (Ospreys); Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff), Taine Basham (Dragons), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons).

Replacements: Dewi Lake (Ospreys), Gareth Thomas (Ospreys) Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Rugby) Seb Davies (Cardiff) Ross Moriarty (Dragons), Gareth Davies (Scarlets) Callum Sheedy (Bristol Bears) Owen Watkin (Ospreys).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

Assistant Referees: Matthieu Raynal (France), Nic Berry (Australia)

TMO: Stuart Terheege (England)

Overall head to head: Played 132, Ireland 55 wins, Wales 70 wins, 7 draws.

Last five meetings: (2019) Wales 17 Ireland 22 (Six Nations). Ireland 19 Wales 10 (RWC warm-up). (2020) Ireland 24 Waleds 14 (Six Nations). Ireland 32 Wales 9 (Autumn Nations Cup). (2021) Wales 21 Ireland 16 (Six Nations).

Five-game formguide: Ireland – Won 39-31 v Japan (home). Won 71-10 v USA (home), Won 60-5 v Japan (home). Won 29-20 v New Zealand (home). Won 53-7 v Argentina (home).

Wales – Lost 11-33 v Argentina (home). Lost 16-54 v New Zealand (home). Lost 18-23 v South Africa (home). Won 38-23 v Fiji (home). Won 29-28 v Australia (home).

Betting: Ireland 1/9, Draw 25/1, Wales 11/2. Handicap odds (Wales +14pts) Evens Ireland, 22/1 Draw, Evens Wales.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times