Ireland face toughest Six Nations test yet against Wales
Joe Schmidt’s men will have to stay focused to overcome a confident Welsh team
Once more 2.15pm on a Saturday at Lansdowne Road is Six Nations time. But this will be different from a fortnight ago. The forecast is set fair and the stakes couldn’t be much bigger. Ireland are facing what looks like their most difficult task yet in maintaining their winning momentum, while Wales are simply in do-or-die mode.
The Red Dragonhood began arriving in their hordes yesterday, and will descend in their thousands this afternoon, with the same sprightly spring in their step as their players. The Irish crowd should be altogether more apprehensive and hence animated.
Before the tournament started, Ireland might have seemed worthy 11-point favourites, but as those odds have shrunk, there’s an almost palpable sense of trepidation in the air. Wales arrived in this tournament riddled with injuries, and were even deemed vulnerable for their opener at home to Scotland.
Having dismantled Scotland with a bonus point, and then come away from Twickenham aggrieved only to have earned a losing bonus point, Wales arrive intent not only on extending their three-game unbeaten run against Ireland in the NatWest Six Nations but also, according to their scrum-half Gareth Davies, seeking a bonus-point win.
This could be dismissed as typical of a cheeky chappie Welsh scrum-half, but it also reflects characteristic Welsh confidence when they generate momentum in a tournament format. Maybe it’s something to do with being brought up on that golden ’70s era and that generation of great Welsh players.
However, Ireland have their own momentum too, after manufacturing one of the great Houdini-esque wins in Paris and then filleting Italy. But whereas Wales have regained three Lions, Ireland have lost three in Robbie Henshaw, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong, on top of being without another in Seán O’Brien. And there was even the disconcerting sight of Johnny Sexton having treatment on his back at the start of yesterday’s captain’s run. Maybe we just fret too much.
In any event, this is traditionally a wildly unpredictable fixture in which home advantage is relatively negligible, so even the eight-point favouritism looks less than tempting.
Familiarity has certainly heightened the rivalry between these two of late. Subplots abound, and that’s before we even factor in two sets of players who could hardly be more familiar with each other. There’s the two high-achieving, multi-decorated New Zealand coaches for whom this will be a fifth and penultimate set-to in this grandest of old international competitions.
“Both countries, by and large, pick from teams within their home country,” said Rory Best yesterday. “Because of that, you are used to playing against each other in the Pro14 and Europe. For some reason, you seem to know each other better than anyone else. With the Welsh, we seem to play them a lot. They are a team that want to play. They are a country, traditionally, that want to go and play rugby. Ireland are the same now.
“A lot of it will come down to a physical battle. It will also come down to who wants to go out and take the game. Whichever country sits back and waits for the other one to lose it is going to be on the losing side.
“This is a game where you have to go out and take your opportunities and you have to take them with both hands. But, they are going to be limited.
“As much as both teams want to play rugby, they pride themselves on their defence as well.”
Amid these knowns, there are the relative unknowns. Huge talent though Porter is, he has yet to start a European Cup match. This is, by some distance, his biggest test yet, and Joe Schmidt betrayed a hint of concern over Wales’s scrummaging technique.
“Look, after just over three minutes last weekend Andrew Porter had to come on to replace Tadhg [Furlong] and did a sterling job, for 76½ minutes. So he acquitted himself really well. I know it’s not the same level. Rob Evans is a tricky customer; the angles and stepping around, all those will be really good learning experiences for Andrew Porter. And they’ve got to learn somewhere and this is a really good opportunity for him.”
This match, his 109th test for Ireland, is another landmark for Rory Best, who overtakes Paul O’Connell as his country’s third-most-capped player behind Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara. He also equals O’Connell’s record for captaining Ireland 24 times, second only to O’Driscoll.
Ironically, he made his full Six Nations debut against Wales in Cardiff in 2007, scoring a try in the Ireland victory, when he had the experienced duo of Marcus Horan and John Hayes packing down either side of him. Now it’s his turn to look after Porter.
Whether or not the scrum becomes a key area – it often doesn’t – there’s no doubt the aerial contest and the collision/breakdown will be, as will the question of which team will pierce the other to actually score tries.
Certainly the return of Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny ought to ensure Wales suffer nothing like the sense of grief they endured in Twickenham. Like much else, this looks evenly balanced and will depend very much on the day.
On the ground, this Welsh side have shown themselves to be good over the ball, but Dan Leavy, CJ Stander, Rory Best and their comrades can be equally adept. Yet Welsh line speed and their work rate in defence, so good in Twickenham, suggests they will be as hard to crack as ever, while their willingness to attack out wide and the manner Ireland have conceded four tries to date is a concern.
Yet in the heel of the hunt, Ireland are unbeaten at home in five years in the Six Nations, and that counts for something. You sense too they are primed for a highly focused, accurate 80-minute effort, and that maybe the intensive pressure which might follow will generate three-pointers as well as seven-pointers, and if Conor Murray and Sexton stay fit they have the players to guide them over the line.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Chris Farrell (Young Munster/Munster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster). Replacements: Sean Cronin (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Jack McGrath (St Mary’s College/Leinster), John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster), Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht), Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster), Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster).
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Liam Williams (Saracens), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Steff Evans (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Gareth Davies (Scarlets); Rob Evans (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Cory Hill (Dragons), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) (capt), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester). Replacements: Elliot Dee (Dragons), Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Bradley Davies (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Aled Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), George North (Northampton Saints).
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Matthew Carley (England)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)
Head-to-head: Played – 125. Ireland Won – 50. Wales Won – 68. Drawn – 7.
Last five meetings: (2015) (6N) Wales 23 Ireland 16 (Millennium Stadium); (RWC warm-up) Wales 21 Ireland 35 (Millennium Stadium); (RWC warm-up) Ireland 10 Wales 16 (Aviva Stadium). (2016) (6N) Ireland 16 Wales 16 (Aviva Stadium). (2017) (6N) Wales 22 Ireland 9 (Millennium Stadium).
Biggest wins: Ireland (Points and Margin) 54-10 (2002). Wales (Points) 34-9 (1976); (Margin) 29-0 (1907).
Five-game form guide: Ireland: Won 38-3 v South Africa (home); Won 23-20 v Fiji (home); Won 28-19 v Argentina (home); Won 15-13 v France (away); Won 56-19 v Italy (home). Wales: Won 13-6 v Georgia (home); Lost 18-33 v New Zealand (home); Won 24-22 v South Africa (home); Won 34-7 v Scotland (home); Lost 6-12 v England (away).
Betting (Paddy Power): 3/10 Ireland, 19/1 Draw, 13/5 Wales. Handicap odds (Wales +8pts): Evens Ireland, 17/1 Draw, Evens Wales.
Forecast: Ireland to win.