Ireland v Wales, Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2020

Same as it ever was

One week down in the 2020 Six Nations and it’s easy to jump to conclusions: Ireland’s scar tissue from Japan remains, Italy show no signs of progress and a victory for anyone over England is as good as an Irish win.

We’ll look at the Ireland Wales contest in detail followed by previews for Round Two’s other fixtures: Scotland v England, and, France v Italy.

Ireland v Wales – 8th February 2:15pm, Aviva Stadium

Not many thought that Ireland would ultimately rely on a butchered try and a defiant goal-line stand to overcome Scotland in last week’s Six Nations opener.

Perhaps hubris raced past pragmatism, with public and pundits alike happy to overlook the latter stages of the World Cup, instead focusing on Ireland’s comprehensive victory in Yokohama on the tournament’s opening weekend.

Moreover, Scotland were missing their attacking dynamo, Finn Russell, and Ireland, under a new coaching ticket would be rejuveanted after a winter of relative discontent. Who knows what would have happened if Stuart Hogg hadn’t commited an error that would have under-12s coaches seething but a first game victory will be just fine for Andy Farrell.

Remember, Joe Schmidt’s first proper test – with apologies to Samoa – as Irish coach was a bit of an abomination, the home side losing 32-15 to Australia yet only eight days later, they almost made history against a record- breaking New Zealand side.

This is not to try and mirror the experience of a coach on debut but it’s probably a bit hasty to decry the new regime as turgidly stuck in the old ways. Just yet.

Farrell had relatively little time to change it up and it’s difficult to see where the spark is going to come from. Conor Murray kicked regularly and to little effect, and, while the execution can’t be laid at the feet of Farrell, the choice of tactic can.

It’s concerning that Ireland have already lost their attacking fulcrum, Garry Ringrose, to a hand injury that may yet jeopardise his particpication in the rest of this year’s tournament. Ringrose looked sharp in the few opportunities presented his way and he tends to really come to life as defences tire late on in a game.

Robbie Henshaw, while certainly an outstanding defender and a mainstay only eighteen months ago, just does not possess either the speed or nous to attack in the manner which Ireland apparently intend.

Having said that, Henshaw and his old Connacht teammate, Bundee Aki, always formed a formidable pairing and it could be iust the opportunity the Athlone man needs to rejuvenate a slightly stalled international career.

The key, as with last week, is to bring Ireland’s hugely talented back three into the game, particularly Jordan Larmour, who seems to be that one signature game away from elevating himself from outstanding talent to international star.

Flanking him, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway did little wrong last week – neither would have enjoyed Murray’s weapon of choice – but with Keith Earls back in the 23, there is little room for error.

There is a sense, largely misguided – not with the bookies mind – that Wales’ hammering of Italy and Ireland’s struggles in beating Scotland will likely lead only to an away victory this afternoon. Italy are, unfortunately, in a bit of a heap at the moment and Scotland, like Ireland as we well know, perform better as underdogs.

Also, perhaps more importantly, recency bias may be playing a hand in how the two sides are viewed coming into this year’s tournament. Warren Gatland, the most successful coach in the northern hemisphere in the last decade, left Welsh rugby on a high. Incidentally, he has started his Super Rugby coaching career with the Waikato Chiefs with two vicories further elevating himself up the New Zealand coaching tree.

Wales are Grand Slam champions and when beaten semi-finalists by enventual winners, South Africa, last October, they had simply taken too many body shots to keep moving forward.

Ireland, well we know how 2019 went, but people were quick to forget the five outstanding years that preceeded it. Indeed, during that period, Ireland collected three championships but World Cup failure has hung like an albatross around their neck.

Irish rugby has been in rude health for years and there may have been a perception from Wales, justified or otherwise, of a sense of superiorty emanating from their Celtic neighbours. Yet, when this World Cup came round, a Welsh side shorn of their best player, Liam Williams, came within a kick of beating the World Champions in-waiting.

It should count for very little today as Gatland and Schmidt are now both gone but until such time as Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac carve their own paths, the recent past will weigh heavily on this fixture.

Wales are still without Williams, their outstanding full-back has not appeared since suffering an ankle injury in training prior to the World Cup semi-final. Their back line is further depleted by the long-term absence of Gareth Anscombe and Lions centre, Jonathan Davies.

Anscombe’s replacement, the hugely experienced Dan Biggar hardly weakens the team but the inclusion of Saracen’s Nick Tompkins gives the Welsh midfield a perceived callowness.

The back three draws on buckets of experience in Leigh Halfpenny and George North – still only 27! – and buckets of tries in Josh Adams.

Still, this side is not one to fear for Ireland and while Pivac enjoyed some success with the Scarlets, his interntional head coaching experience mirrors Farrell’s, in that he has none.

Today there is an obligation on some of Ireland’s established stars to step it up, none more so than Murray. Some of the rugby loyalists who think you should never be dropped once you’ve earned your spot seem to think Murray is being unduly criticised but the fact is he has not been particularly good for Ireland in the last year.

Conor Murray, Ireland’s best ever scrum-half, is likely playing for his position today. Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Cian Healy and Iain Henderson are far from secure, while Peter O’ Mahony – in as a result of Caelan Doris’ head injury – knows he has 80 minutes to win back the jersey that had been nailed on him for the last three years.

A tip of the hat also to the Aviva Stadium last week who were almost perversely impressive in barely raising a whimper over the 80 minutes. Perhaps it was the stop-start nature of the game or an over-familiarity with Scotland but the result was a subdued crowd, even at the most atmospheric kick-off time.

Wales have garnered a reputation of being able to rely on their mental foritude when their game is not flowing, Ireland quite the opposite. This is an ideal opportunity for Ireland to tip the scales, on a day when the sides look very evenly matched.

Home advantage to swing it.

SUS Prediction: Ireland by 4

Tips: Ireland -3 @ 10/11

Wales H-T/Ireland F-T @ 6/1

Scotland v France , 8th February 2020 4:45pm, Murrayfield

Despite both sides losing on the opening weekend, England visit Murrayfield for today’s late kick off under significnatly more pressure due, as is custom, to Eddie Jones’ combined big mouth and victim routine.

Jones, who seems to neatly occupy the characterisation of ‘great guy if you actually know him’, continued in his quest to antagonise his opposition with little gain when announcing last week that England would unleash “absolute brutality” on France last week. Perhaps he meant brutal in the Irish sense, as a final quarter surge was the only thing that prevented the World Cup runners-up from enduring consecutive hidings.

England performed extremely well for long periods in the World Cup but were aided massively by the facts that they suffered few injuries and played a game less due to the fallout of Typhoon Hagibis. Tomorrow, they face an improved Soctland side without their two most powerful ball carriers, Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi.

Deprived of Vunipola in Paris, Jones sought to brutalise the French without a number eight and with a nominal second row at blindside flanker. Jones’ choices were quite perplexing and, in light of the defeat, he’s doubled down with a slew of flankers at the back of the scrum, Lewis Ludlam coming it to replace Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry remaining at number eight.

Hosts Scotland have a proud history of producing understated but excellent flankers so perhaps Jones decision is rooted in this logic. England were destroyed on the ground in 2018 so it makes sense that they want to be competitive in this area. However, there’s an argument for moving Curry to his natural role and bringing in a ball carrier like Nathan Hughes. The Scots will be delighted that Jones hubris has somewhat backed himself into this corner though.

Scotland’s tournament build up was, of course, blighted by Finn Russell’s Super Sunday, but they performed really well in Dublin. Their line speed was excellent, their scrum dominant and, as Stuart Hogg will be reminded for quite some time, they left a minimum of two points behind at a vital juncture of the game.

Adam Hastings did not look out of place at out-half and Townsend was absolutely correct to retain the Glasgow pivot for the Calcutta Cup fixture. Those 80 minutes should prove invaluable for Hastings and he can be expected to bring Hogg and Sam Johnson into the line at regular intervals.

Meanwhile, Owen Farrell has looked a little off – you’d wonder the mental toll this season has taken on poor, put-upon Saracens players this year – and without Tuilagi, the English midfield suddenly looks a little vulnerable.

England are seven point favourites but that seems a little disrespectful of the hosts, particualrly as they have plenty of positives to carry forward from last week.

Murrayfield will be buzzing, particualrly with the anti-English sporting sentitment having returned to the heady heights of the 90s. This game is already a must win for both sides and Jones has already made the wise decision to avoid the train home.

There’s a sense the flight won’t be much more enjoyable.

SUS Prediction Scotland by 3

Tips 1. Scotland to win @ 11/4

2. Huw Jones anytime try scorer @ 7/2

France v Italy, 9th February 3:00 pm, Stade de France

France returned to something resembling their best in their impressive victory over England last weekend. Shaun Edwards, a major coup for Les Bleus, has their defence working more efficiently and the Stade de France was, once more, cauldron-like.

Antoine Dupont is possibly the best scrum-half in the world right now – apologies to Faf de Klerk and his ridiculous hair – and Charles Ollivon looks an absolutely terrifying prospect. True, Teddy Thomas still has utter disdain for the concept of defence but France can always carry an entertainer.

Italy alas, are not in a good place. There were very few bright spots from last week’s heavy defeat in Cardiff, apart perhaps from their dominant scrum.

Their under 20s had an excellent victory in Wales last Friday week so the future is bright but that won’t give the today’s team much solace.

If you’re still reading at this stage, fair play to you, so we won’t keep you any longer. France are going to win here and it should be a fair hiding. Having said that, the French are contractually obliged to disappoint on the back of an impressive victory so the points may not flow.

The difference now is that Edwards is part of the coaching team. France may not run up 40 plus and that’s a good thing. However, it would be a surprise if they’re huddled under their posts at any point on Sunday afternoon.

SUS Prediction: France 32 Italy 6

Tips 1. Handicap draw (France -26) @ 25/1

2. First try scorer Anthony Bouthier @ 12/1

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Ireland v Wales, Irish Rugby, Rugby World Cup 2019 Warm Ups

Deja Vu All Over Again

We could all learn a little from staying in the moment. Late last year as the country grew giddy up in the aftermath of a victory over New Zealand, Gerry Thornley suggested on Second Captains that rather looking to the Rugby World Cup, we should simply enjoy the victory over the world’s best side in isolation.

However, unlike athletes or more reasoned people, the Irish public couldn’t help but point to another indication that we were ready to compete seriously in Japan. In light of a disquieting 2019 for the Irish rugby team, perhaps we should have taken heed of Thornley’s advice.

Barring victory against a completely disinterested French side, the Six Nations brought ill tidings for this Irish team. If Joe Schmidt’s side were hoodwinked by England, there could no argument that the Welsh caught us by surprise in Cardiff on St Patricks weekend. Even allowing for the caveats sprinkled liberally hereafter, Ireland’s prospects of success in Japan in the coming months have been blunted to the point of impotence.

While it is the natural for the sporting public – in all countries not just Ireland – to overreact to the fortunes of their team, it is not unreasonable for us to wonder just what exactly has gone wrong with this Irish team?

People have been at pains to point out that Ireland were only playing their second warm up match on Saturday evening, while England had already faced Wales twice in increasingly competitive fixtures. That might give you a little grace, particularly from the point of view of match fitness, but it will take considerably longer to establish why Ireland defended so wretchedly from the off? Or why each English first phase play looked like a move orchestrated by the Stephen Larkham-era Australians?

The first, and gravest concern, is that Ireland are not the type of team who can simply, like Dustin Johnson, completely forget their bad days, dust themselves off and move on to the next challenge. A record-breaking defeat against England in Twickenham four weeks out from the start of the World Cup is exceptionally worrying. And, one would have to wonder why – outside of presumed financial incentives – why the IRFU chose to play a bulldozing English side in Twickenham at this point in Ireland’s preparations?

England, of course,  had already picked their 31 players to travel to Japan and this was probably the last run out for the first fifteen but for anyone over the age of 30, there was more than a hint of the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when England routinely demoralised and disassembled Ireland. There were so many worrying aspects to Ireland’s performance though. With the exception of a fairly solid scrum, every facet of Ireland’s game malfunctioned with aplomb.

While miserable, Brazil-based troll journalists bask in the recent failings of the Irish rugby team, while rambling incoherently about the Celtic Tiger, it seems the rest of the country are alarmed, though not surprised, by the continued dip in form. Most reasonable observers though will note the same failings that surrounded the 2015 World Cup are bubbling to the surface once more.

Ireland defended narrowly and passively, which is a combination destined for failure. Most sides that defend narrowly at least rush up and in to force the attack to make decisions – you see this every week in both codes of rugby – but Ireland’s lack of cohesion in defence was mystifying. Bundee Aki seemed to bite too often but Jacob Stockdale too made some dreadful defensive reads, as did Rob Kearney to a lesser extent.

Allied to the obvious systemic failings in the defence was the rash of missed tackles with Joe Cockinasinga, Jonny May and the outstanding Manu Tuil’agi repeatedly going over or around the Irish defence.

Ross Byrne, making his full debut, must have surveyed proceedings shortly after half time and grown jealous of Jack Carty but the Connacht man was thrown into the fray shortly thereafter and his job was akin to the little boy plugging the holes in the dam in Holland. On a day when the problems begun up front, Byrne can’t be to blame but Carty’s selection against Wales suggests that his selection, injury aside, is a done deal.

Of course, this decision is predicated on the fact that Joey Carberry will have recovered in time, and, if he doesn’t then this decision becomes moot and both inexperienced out halves will travel to Japan as cover for a yet to be seen, Johnny Sexton.

Despite the fact they were a step ahead in their progress and playing to a home crowd, England should go to Japan marginally behind New Zealand as favourites. However, any concerns over having to face an England team bloated on confidence should be parked for the foreseeable future, particularly with an ebullient Warren Gatland and Wales waiting in the wings tomorrow.

Wales are resting more than half their starting fifteen, giving full debuts to two players, Owen Lane and Rhys Carre, and a first start to out-half, Jarrod Evans. Still, while the task on paper isn’t as daunting as last week, Wales look have picked largely from where they left off in March and the players and fans will be desperate to give Gatland a winning send-off in his last home game as Wales coach.

Ireland have two matches and realistically three weeks to get things right. The result on Saturday should not be viewed through the prism of past failings, or certainly no earlier than 2015. This is Joe Schmidt’s second time round, we know he is leaving and yet it feels like the team has fallen flat since the turn of the year.

Four years ago, Ireland were undone by what appeared to be a lack of depth. For the last two years, the depth in this Irish squad has been trumpeted so where lies the explanation, apart from the fact that depth generally dissipates when you have to actively call on it.

There are two schools of thought on how to approach the Six Nations or, indeed, the Rugby Championship in the year of a Rugby World Cup. The first, which applies almost exclusively to New Zealand, is that you try out as many players and combinations, with the overarching intention of winning, of course. The second, which applies to everyone else, and as succinctly put by Jay Rock, and, by Clive Woodward last week is to win every game. That was the plan England put in place in 2002/2003 with each victory instilling deeply ingrained belief and tenacity. We’ve seen how the beating by England in February seemingly crushed the confidence of an Irish team who were only three months removed from a brilliant victory over New Zealand.

Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have experienced extremely different build ups to the World Cup as they both enter the final months of their current roles.

Ireland were massively successful on the back of a game plan which they could only dream of for years, able to physically overpower the likes of England and South Africa. After being turned inside out in Dublin, Cardiff and now London, what will Schmidt do?

Controlling the ball doesn’t really matter if all you can offer is static one out runners or an shift of the ball wide without penetrating through the central area of the pitch. We’re beating the same monotonous drum here but beyond offering banalities like ‘In Joe We Trust’ or that something is being held back  – we’d suggest everything at this stage – pundits and ex-players alike seem to at a loss.

We are all aware of the impeccable attention to detail that Schmidt applies to his game plan and the fact his team is – akin to NFL players – tasked with absorbing mines of information with a view to making in-game decisions based on what they see. Oxymoronically, it seems that players get cut adrift if they try something risky – often known as an offload – and it doesn’t come off. This was fine when we were able to carry and clear impeccably but now that teams are gang tackling – throwback to Wellington in 2011 – and steaming up quickly, the attack looks devoid of ideas.

Unlike the rest of us, Schmidt, his coaches and the Irish squad are not in the business of overreacting so you suspect that while they were chastened after last week, they possess an unerring belief that they can turn things around quickly.

Ireland aren’t the only team with problems – South Africa have had a fairly tumultuous week – but more than anyone given our World Cup pedigree, or lack thereof, the situation needs to be ameliorated before the plane leaves for Asia.

There are questions over hooker, back row, centre and our captain, not to mention Joey Carberry’s ankle. Moreover, there is the fact that we haven’t beaten a top six team in 2019. That alone should provide Ireland with enough motivation tomorrow. After last weekend Ireland should forget about learnings and work-ons. Just win.

Straight Up Prediction: Ireland by 4

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Ireland v Wales, Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018: Ireland v Wales Preview

Even when you account for hyperbole – because we all love the Six Nations – this year’s tournament has been enthralling thus far. Three out of six games have been tight affairs, four teams have left themselves in the mix for the championship and France are a mess once more.

Given what’s gone before, it’s fitting that the remaining contenders face off this weekend in Dublin and Edinburgh, respectively. Scotland, fuelled by as yet unsubstantiated self-confidence entertain the heretofore efficient England. This game offers a genuine opportunity to the Scottish to justify their hype while the English will be looking to quieten any suggestions that their back play has become sluggish and predictable.

While proceedings get under way in Paris tonight, the weekend truly kicks off on Lansdowne Road on Saturday afternoon. Warren Gatland, whose star has perhaps never shone so brightly, brings a gradually healing Welsh squad to Dublin looking to continue his excellent recent record against Ireland. Ireland, who have watched the bodies hit the floor this week are still seven-point favourites and that should immediately sound the alarm bells.

With the IRFU’s recent blanket ban on the dailies’ news conference, all the talk has been of the importance of the freedom of the press and the perceived pettiness of some of Ireland’s largest sporting bodies and individuals.

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“Down with those probing questions” (photo courtesy of The Irish Times)

Unfortunately, in a situation like this it generally falls to ‘which side are you on’ as some believe it is the team’s duty to report to the media and provide sufficient access while others believe the media – whose work they ingest on a daily basis – do not deserve any access and constantly look to find baseless stories to propagate their clickbait. We’re of the view that the team should be obliged to provide comment for the media as, whether they like it or not, they generally profit from media coverage.

Interviews are largely and understandably banal now and many people have pointed that sporting organisations are attempting to control their own media in-house. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of very interesting characters are forced to provide vacuous content for their own employer’s online platform. Still, while places like Twitter and The White House would suggest that humanity has regressed irreparably, there remain enough people both interested and intelligent enough to seek their news elsewhere.

The myth that the media always enjoyed a good relationship with sporting organisations is brilliantly debunked in author Mark O’ Brien’s article which appeared in Monday’s Irish Times. The GAA, always ahead of the trend, was the first to chastise and indeed ban journalists from games when the latter had the neck to report incidences of violence in hurling and Gaelic football in the 1950s. According to The Irish Times, the great Christy Ring’s strike to the head of Tipperary’s Tom Moloughney ‘added no lustre to Ring’s reputation’ and when D. Hickey of the Irish Independent expanded on Ring’s ‘deplorable’ act, he was subsequently refused entry to the Cork Athletic Grounds to cover the county final. And to think of the abuse poor Tommy Walsh used to get for creatively devising ways to win the high ball.

Yet, while this is clearly not the first time the sports press have been blackballed, it is symptomatic, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions this week, of a growing intolerance of the sports media. Sports reporting may be less urgent and vital than that of current affairs but it is somewhat disappointing that we as consumers should have to accept the heavy-handed actions of sporting bodies.

No one wants to hear the watered down views of the IRFU or FAI and like it or not, the media plays a hugely important role in promoting sport. Nobody expects absolute candour but between the IRFU’s stonewalling and Martin O’Neill’s unusual approach to Tony O’ Donoghue, an air of militancy has crept into Irish sport.

 

It may not affect the end product all that much though as the general antipathy towards journalists in soccer hasn’t prevented the production of excellent journalism. Also, it’s a near certainty that you could count the memorable or insightful post-match interviews you’ve heard on one hand. Coaches offer next to nothing of interest in interviews and players are far more revealing, and less exhausted, in a one on one setting.

Further, one could argue that the incredibly closed shop of Irish rugby prohibits any of the established journalists from writing what they think when the team underperforms. Or, just generally. You can’t blame the established rugby writers for picking their words carefully but the lack of critique is sometimes grating. And this current ban can’t actually prevent individual players giving interviews, ones that will be far more interesting than anything Joe Schmidt or Simon Easterby usually deliver? Nonetheless, while the recent IRFU ban has ironically led to countless column inches, the end result will most likely be of negligible effect to the production of thoughtful, informative sports journalism.

To this weekend’s main event and the visit of an ominously improving Welsh side. Warren Gatland, long the shade-throwing, instigator has declined donning his troll cap this week. So long the pantomime villain in this piece, the 54 year-old has thrown precious few barbs in Ireland’s direction this week.

Gatland once again confirmed himself as an outstanding coach with the Lions drawn series in New Zealand last summer. For years, supporters and media alike criticised his unsophisticated approach, then encapsulated in the famous ‘Warrenball’ term. The term, though not without merit, is overly simplistic as the game changed together with the personnel at Gatland’s disposal but two Grand Slams and a Six Nations Championship in the Kiwi’s decade in charge represents an exceptional return.

Perhaps coinciding with the rise of Wayne Pivac’s thrilling Scarlets side, Wales openly stated this past summer that their playing style was going to change to a more expansive approach. In their tournament opener against Scotland – who had hyped themselves mightily all week- the Welsh provided a high-octane display, kept the ball in hand and in play for extended periods and seared through the Scottish defence seemingly at will. As impressive as that Scarlets inspired display was, the effort in defeat in Twickenham was even more laudable. Down eight Lions before kick-off and 12 points shortly thereafter, Wales kept England scoreless the rest of the way home and were unlucky not to take more from the refortified stadium.

 

Wales conceded a total of two penalties in that game thus negating Owen Farrell’s prolific boot so the question is just how exactly will Ireland break the visitors down on Saturday? Paris was wet and the Italian game revealed little so Ireland will have to think outside of the English box if they are to break down this exceptional Welsh wall. Both last year and in Cardiff three years ago, Ireland huffed and puffed relentlessly but with little invention and they were ultimately thwarted on the back of an outstanding defensive effort.

The most recent Welsh defensive effort in London allied to their breakdown work which improved as the game went on should provide Ireland with plentiful food for thought particularly when Ireland, no more than any other side admittedly, live and die by the speed and quality of their ruck ball.

More ominously, Ireland will have to deal without Tadhg Furlong in a major game for the first time in eighteen months and though Andrew Porter looks a fine player, he is being asked to replace the best tighthead prop in the world against a scrum that gradually gained superiority over the English a fortnight ago. While it is perhaps unfair to presume Porter will struggle in this department, tighthead props don’t generally ease themselves into the international game and Ireland will now have to seek parity, at best, in an area that has become a real asset in recent seasons.

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Andrew Porter has been tasked with filling the boots of Tadhg Furlong. (photo courtesy joe.ie)

Allied to Furlong’s absence is the more unexpected loss of Iain Henderson, the man who has grown fully into his role at the core of this Irish pack. Henderson has been brilliant all season, despite Ulster sometimes resembling Albert Square this year, and his aggression and ability to make a big play, in particular, will be sorely missed. Robbie Henshaw’s season-ending injury denies Ireland of a trio of its core players.

Two things are worth noting here, however. Wales, bedraggled by injuries all season will give less than a shit about Ireland’s current predicament, while more importantly the chastening Argentinian defeat in October 2015 always prefaced the day when Ireland would need to confirm the new found squad depth, which Joe Schmidt rightly identified as lacking.

Coaches are far more pragmatic than supporters in the wake of crucial injuries. It’s part of the job so they must be. And, in light of Ireland’s exit from the World Cup, Joe Schmidt has worked tirelessly to create genuine depth throughout his squad. The general perception is that Johnny Sexton still remains irreplaceable and Conor Murray is loitering near this classification also. Could this change after Saturday?

With the exception of Australia in November 2016, which came only a year after the World Cup, Saturday offers the greatest challenge to Ireland’s depth since 2015. Three players – Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Chris Farrell – with a combined 11 caps between them will play integral roles if Ireland are to overcome a resurgent and tireless Welsh side that has just welcomed three Lions, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams back into the fold.

Biggar will bring physicality, structure and a quality kicking game at number ten but he lacks the creativity and running threat of the man he replaces, Rhys Patchell. It would be impossible to omit Biggar but his inclusion suggests Wales may revert to a robust approach.  The visitors will gladly invite Ireland into a street fight of sorts and the panache with which they despatched Scotland is unlikely to surface.

Ireland, for their part, have proven time and again that they are more than able for an aggressive affair but given the moving parts, the hope is that Bundee Aki and Farrell are allowed do more than just smash it straight up the middle. This tactic has proven pointless of late against Wales and if the penalty count is low again, Ireland won’t be able to rely on creating platforms from lineout mauls deep in Welsh territory.

Ireland’s hopes will still live and die on the quality of performance from Johnathan Sexton and Conor Murray. It seems a bit obvious to state this but given how tight this game will be, the home side will probably require their stars to guide them. Their performances should be raised by the fact that they are facing the second best half-back pairing in the tournament.

SextonMurray

As Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton go, so go Ireland. (photo courtesy of rugbylad.ie)

The packs match up very evenly, similarly the back lines, where the returning Liam Williams is set for an enthralling contest with the Six Nations form winger, Keith Earls. Even at the back, Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny can match each other for unfussy reliability so everything points to this game being a tight grind that will be decided by less than a score.

Roughneck affairs like this usually favour the home side, bringing the crowd into the game, and Ireland won’t for even one moment countenance being pushed around by Alun Wyn Jones’ pack. And, if this game follows the Twickenham script then the defences will be watertight, tries will be at a premium and it would be no surprise if this game is decided by a solitary moment of magic.

Dreams of a Grand Slam may still be alive come Saturday but more importantly, we’ll know for certain whether Joe Schmidt’s best-laid plans are coming to fruition.

Ireland by 3

Tips: (i) Wales + 8 and under 39.5 points @ 5/2

            (ii) C.J. Stander 1st try scorer @ 14/1

 

 

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