Mix of fear and confidence can spur Irish on

RBS Six Nations: IRELAND V WALES
Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip acknowledged the high-stakes nature of today’s RBS 6 Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff as coaches from both sides predicted another cliffhanger.

Grand Slam champions Wales may be on a seven-game losing streak heading into today’s showdown but they currently have the upper hand over Declan Kidney’s side, winning the last three encounters, the most recent of which was thanks to a late Leigh Halfpenny penalty at the Aviva Stadium 12 months ago.

Four of the last five championship meetings have been decided by less than seven points and with the Grand Slam, Triple Crown and possibly a championship title on the line in game one, Heaslip is fully aware of what is riding on his first Six Nations game as Ireland captain.

“We realise what the game is, what’s at stake here and what’s coming at us. Wales, who have lost their last couple of games and might be a little bit scorned but who are Grand Slam champions and we’re playing them in their backyard,” Heaslip said.

“So we know exactly what’s at stake here and we’re on the wrong end of three games where they’ve beaten us. At the same time we’ve parked that a little bit. We’ve worried about their threats and looked at their weaknesses earlier on in the week and then picked our plays and done our defence accordingly and all that work has been done.

“Now you have to try and not let that pressure get to you.”

Head coach Kidney, who yesterday reported Rob Kearney was fit to play despite the full-back having suffered a bang on the knee in training on Tuesday, predicted another close encounter.

“The history has shown it’s like that. The drama that has happened in the last five minutes of Irish-Welsh matches over the years has been the thing for TV, hasn’t it? Maybe that’s why we’re first up in the competition, to get the competition going pretty well,” Kidney said.

“But we saw the power of Wales in that World Cup match. If we give them any space at all they’ll go 10 points ahead and they know that with their kicking game they can keep us drilled back.

“But you have to have some confidence going into it. You get confidence from the preparation but you have to have a healthy dose of fear – and you know what the Welsh can do to you. We have a good mix of both but history will show that it will be a one-score game all right.”

Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards referred to Ireland’s most recent visit to Cardiff in 2011 when Mike Phillips scored a controversial and decisive second-half try following an illegally-taken lineout and he echoed Kidney’s argument.

“The last time we played here it was incredibly close and Ireland were riled about the try we scored,” Edwards said.

“There’s only really been one blowout which was in 2010 when Ireland did a proper job on us in Dublin but the others have been incredibly close. That’s what sport’s about, two evenly matched teams going at it, toe to toe.”

Ireland v Wales: How they match-up

SCRUM

Wales: The return of Adam Jones at tighthead prop, after a keenly felt absence during the autumn, is a massive boost, reuniting him with an all-Lions front row alongside Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins, making his 100th Test appearance. Jones can give the best looseheads a torrid time, turning Welsh scrums into a potent attacking platform. 4½/5

Ireland: Ireland’s first choice front row is back together again with Cian Healy Rory Best and Mike Ross packing down together and that is very good news for the visitors in this scrummaging battle. The lack of depth at tighthead, so cruelly exposed at Twickenham last year, is still a concern, however, with Stephen Archer injured and Michael Bent blown away by an English second string last weekend, meaning Declan Fitzpatrick has been parachuted in after just five minutes of game time with the Wolfhounds 3½/5

LINEOUT

Wales: The absence of Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris was exposed in the final November Test against Australia when the Welsh lineout creaked considerably. Now Bradley Davies and Ryan Jones have joined them on the sidelines, meaning a Test debut for the Dragons’ journeyman Andrew Coombs. The return of Ian Evans from injury, however, brings some much-needed Test experience and back row Aaron Shingler can be deployed to good effect. 3/5

Ireland: Donnacha Ryan is growing into his role as lineout leader in the continued absence of Paul O’Connell, and forging a strong partnership with Mike McCarthy that should be targeting a weakened Welsh lineout. There are plenty of options with a back row featuring Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony while the return of Best at hooker should bring some consistent throwing. 4/5

BREAKDOWN

Wales: Interim coach Rob Howley resisted the urge to play out and out in-form openside Justin Tipuric and switch captain Sam Warburton to blindside, meaning Shingler continues at 6. Even with Dan Lydiate and Ryan Jones missing, it’s a potent rucking unit, but it is a gamble to start without Tipuric. 3½/5

Ireland: Captain Heaslip led by example with an excellent performance against a renowned Argentina breakdown unit last November and in Cian Healy and Best, Ryan and McCarthy, as well as the return of Sean O’Brien alongside fellow flanker Peter O’Mahony, Ireland have plenty of gnarl and aggression for ruck time if they stay accurate under the watch of Romain Poite. 3½/5

KICKING

Wales: A fit-again Leigh Halfpenny brings great tactical awareness with the boot at full-back, as well as a long-range option in front of the posts, while fly-half Dan Biggar has been entrusted to slot the majority of the penalties, just as he did to break Leinster hearts last season in the RaboDirect Pro12 final. In Wales’ big wings Alex Cuthbert and George North they are two powerful chasers although Cuthbert would much prefer to run with ball in hand than kick ahead himself. 4/5

Ireland: Jonny Sexton is the form outside-half in Europe heading into the Six Nations and his kicking prowess is an important factor in his current status. Tactically, full-back Rob Kearney is an excellent kicker while wing Simon Zebo has improved enormously in this department this season and Craig Gilroy is heading down the same route. 4/5

WIDE GAME

Wales: For such a talented backline, Wales withdrew into a shell during the autumn, rarely moving the ball past Jamie Roberts at inside centre. Yet they have the firepower to unsettle any defence, in terms of both muscle and pace and the Six Nations tends to bring out the best in them. Much will depend on Biggar’s ability to step fully into the injured Rhys Priestland’s boots as to whether the Welsh attack will be unleashed. 4/5

Ireland: Seven tries against Argentina last November was not a bad way to sign off for 2012 but it was a long time coming after a dreadful tour to New Zealand and a poor performance offensively against South Africa. Like Wales, they have the firepower in the back three, and the inside backs to set them loose, but they need to hit the ground running. 3½/5

Totals

Wales: 19/25

Ireland: 18½/25

— By Simon Lewis

Picture: SIX SHOOTER: Simon Zebo takes aim during the captain’s run at the Millennium. Picture: Dan Sheridan

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