Six Nations: Wales look better on a day for winning ugly

Extent of the changes to the Irish pack leave Joe Schmidt’s side looking vulnerable

Historical precedent is on their side, but with tough away trips to Ireland and England to come can Wales win their first Six Nations Championship since 2013? John O'Sullivan previews Warren Gatland's team. Video: David Dunne

 

As pivotal openers go, this looks fairly pivotal alright. If Ireland lose, they will be looking down the barrel of successive visits to Paris, in just six days, and Twickenham, and they last completed that particular double in 1972. For Wales, victory would be a precursor to three home games out of four, so for Ireland this already appears a ‘must-win’ if an historic hat-trick of Six Nations titles is to be realised.

To compound this most fiendishly difficult of fixtures of all to call, the weather forecast adds to the capricious nature of this annual Celtic brouhaha, with the wind and rain set to be of near biblical proportions.

In contrast to a settled, powerful and experienced Welsh side, Ireland also look more de-powered in light of Sean O’Brien’s withdrawal, with five of the tight five forwards and both starting flankers from last season’s meeting in Cardiff now missing.

Massive loss

The Irish team has fallen along anticipated lines, albeit with six changes from both the quarter-final of the World Cup last time out and also the defeat to Wales last March.

“What we have tried to do is stay hugely focused on the people we have and the qualities they bring,” said Joe Schmidt, “and the confidence we have in the guys who are in there to step up. While we were massively disappointed with the result in Cardiff and the quarter-final, we have a little bit more preparation this time although Sean and Rob were late withdrawals so that always complicated it a little bit.”

“So would you like another week to prepare? Absolutely. The reality is we play on Sunday. We feel relatively prepared for that but also cognizant of the fact they will be well prepared because there has been real rhythm and continuity in their selections and the way they play the game.”

New players, or recalled ones, can also infuse a team with fresh energy; especially someone as infectiously effervescent as CJ Stander.

“He’s said very little, but what he’s shown has impressed us and certainly he’s effervescent from an energy perspective, and from his enthusiasm at training and his eagerness to slot in amongst other players that he wouldn’t know as well,” said Schmidt.

Ireland will need Stander’s ball-carrying work-rate as well as this roving athleticism and that of Tommy O’Donnell to counter the twin loose threat of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric.

They’ll also need a mighty defensive performance to stop Jamie Roberts or their big wingers when they come charging up the middle, or get their runners coming around the corners. As Mike Ruddock has suggested, maybe Ireland could have one or two of their backrowers to defend the ‘10’ channel other than Johnny Sexton. Not only would this force Wales to adopt a Plan B, but it would help Sexton last 80 minutes.

Schmidt won’t want Ireland being ensnared behind the game line by the Welsh blitz defence, so Ireland’s kicking game, whether Murray’s box kicking, Sexton’s variety and Simon Zebo’s left foot, will surely look to test the Welsh outside three, whether testing the inexperienced Tom James and Gareth Anscombe, or cross-kicks for Andrew Trimble to contest with George North.

The breakdown

Indeed, while the Welsh also have an astute coaching ticket which has had its tactical coups over Ireland in the past, there’s also the Schmidt factor. Ireland will have something up their sleeve. And as well as the enthusiasm which Stander, Mike McCarthy, Tommy O’Donnell and Andrew Trimble will bring, any team with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton half-back has a chance. Then again, Simon Zebo is liable to receive a fair old bombardment as well, and Dan Biggar seems to relish playing in Ireland.

Given the conditions this is likely to be attritional, trench warfare. But without O’Connell and others, Ireland don’t appear to have the firepower up front. Ireland’s starting XV still has 507 caps, compared to Wales 579, but 136 on the bench as against Wales’ 364. Put another way, with the endgame as well as the start game in mind, if Ireland manage a win here, it will be one of their best against the Red Dragonhood in some time.

It may be a day for winning ugly, and Wales look marginally better equipped for that.

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