5 February 2016

Preview: Ireland could sneak against the odds win against Wales

By Tadhg Peavoy

Ireland versus Wales has become one of the great fixture of rugby union. It was not too long ago, in the 1990s, that both teams were rabbles, scrapping it out at the bottom of the Five Nations tables most years, with often only a victory against each other to keep their ever-low confidence levels from disintigrating completely into the winter-spring mist of northern Europe.

But how that has all changed in the Six Nations era. From the nadir that was that decade, both the IRFU and WRU have formed international powerhouses from the talents at their disposal.

Now, in 2016, both sides go into the championship as the teams to beat, with the last four Six Nations titles in their pockets between them.

Yes, the 2015 World Cup proved a disappointment for both sides, with Joe Schmidt’s and Warren Gatland’s outfits coming up short on their desired goals by reaching just the last eight. However, both will see this Six Nations as the perfect tonic for their ails.

The word momentum is bandied about ad nauseum in the build up to round one of the Six Nations and for good reason. A win on opening weekend is just so crucial for confidence and for rhythm as a team hunts down a championship never mind a Grand Slam. And with England and France more than likley to get their campaigns off to positive starts this weekend, the Ireland-Wales tie becomes all the more important as both sides look to get the winning start they need to do the damage they want in subsequent rounds off the platform of two points.

The groundswell of support is going with a Wales win this Sunday on the grounds that they are the more settled side, and certainly looked the more dangerous team at RWC 2015. But that may be too quick a conclusion to jump to.

Yes, the Irish provinces have stuttered and floundered in the Europen Cup this season, but that has been under the tutelage of young, home-grown coaches, and in an environment of superior outfits from France and England dominating with bigger budgets and better squads; this is not so in the Six Nations where the playing field is far more level. Ireland have experience across the pitch, a coach that has done everything in the game bar win a World Cup (which will likely come later in his career, most likely as All Blacks head coach in 2023, after a two-year stint as the Kiwis assistant coach from 2017-2019).

All of this boosts the confidence in the camp and has created a team that has all the requisite parts to become the first team ever to win three successive championships outright.

The Welsh side, though, is very strong; that fact cannot and won’t be ignored.

The pack is gnarled and experienced with Luke Charteris, Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau providing all the experience and guile needed in an eight at Test level.

Much of the fear eminating from the tie around Ireland’s chance are that the home pack will wilt. A valid concern, but also one that seems perhaps too negative. Jack McGrath will be looking to give Samson Lee a roasting at scrum time, and Nathan White’s size and experience add ballast to the front row, with Mike Ross and Marty Moore sidelined. Rory Best’s first game as permanent captain is sure to bring the best out in the Ulster man. Admittedly Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy may not get it all their own way in the engine room and that does seem a fair assessment of the rows. But the new back row of CJ Stander, Tommy O’Donnell and Jamie Heaslip, looks to have the capability to do untold damage with ball in hand should they get an adequate platform at the breakdown.

When one casts one eye out wide along the backline, the Welsh personnel embody Warrenball. The usual suspects of Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, George North and co all line out. Out-half Dan Biggar adds the manna from heaven that makes the back line tick and an on-song display from him will get his side clicking. With Lloyd Williams, Rhys Priestland and Alex Cuthbert in reserve on the bench the last quarter firepower is also there to be called upon.

What Ireland will do to counter their familiar foes is what matters most and where the winning of the tie is. Play around them using invention or kick-chase as they did for the 2014/15 season. Impossible to know unless one is a fly on the wall in the coaches room in Carton House. But with Simon Zebo at 15, and Keith Earls at 11, there is an indication that we could be about to see a wider game from Ireland than was evident at RWC 2015. The game the public wants Schmidt’s brains trust to unleash.

An on-form Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton are a must, and they do tend to bring out the best in each other. They can and I feel will release the power and direct running of Robbie Henshaw regularly, while Jared Payne will add his usual wisdom and vision of the game from 13.

If Ireland get the backline firing and link the back row in well on loose runs in offence, they should be able to cause damage. Hold a strong defensive line against what the world and his wife knows is coming from Wales and Ireland should be right in the tie.

Home advantage has counted for little for Ireland against Wales of late as they have lost two of the last three. If Ireland do claim the W this Sunday, it’s unlikely to be by much, but a an against the odds win could well be on the way.

Verdict: Ireland to win by four.

Ireland: 15-Simon Zebo, 14-Andrew Trimble, 13-Jared Payne, 12-Robbie Henshaw, 11-Keith Earls, 10-Jonathan Sexton, 9-Conor Murray, 1-Jack McGrath, 2-Rory Best (capt), 3-Nathan White, 4-Mike McCarthy, 5-Devin Toner, 6- CJ Stander, 7-Tommy O’Donnell, 8-Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16-Sean Cronin, 17-James Cronin, 18-Tadhg Furlong, 19-Donnacha Ryan, 20-Rhys Ruddock, 21-Kieran Marmion, 22-Ian Madigan, 23-Dave Kearney.

Wales: 15-Gareth Anscombe, 14-George North, 13-Jonathan Davies, 12-Jamie Roberts, 11-Tom James, 10-Dan Biggar, 9-Gareth Davies; 1-Rob Evans, 2-Scott Baldwin, 3-Samson Lee, 4-Luke Charteris, 5-Alun Wyn Jones, 6-Sam Warburton (capt), 7-Justin Tipuric, 8-Toby Faletau.

Replacements: 16-Ken Owens, 17-Gethin Jenkins, 18-Tomas Francis, 19-Bradley Davies, 20-Dan Lydiate, 21-Lloyd Williams, 22-Rhys Priestland, 23-Alex Cuthbert.