It is a game that has the atmosphere of a finale rather than a championship opener but that makes Ireland’s need to hit the ground running in Cardiff today (1:30pm) all the more relevant.
For the second year in a row, Ireland must start their RBS 6 Nations campaign against Wales but the dismal beginnings that have blighted Declan Kidney’s side over numerous Test series cannot be allowed to continue at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon.
Anything other than a fast start from Ireland against the champions will have far-reaching consequences because a fourth consecutive loss to the Welsh would not only end dreams of a Grand Slam to repeat the now fading glory of 2009 but also a Triple Crown and possibly even the title.
Failure to start brightly cost Ireland dearly 12 months ago when the Welsh came to Dublin and eked out a 23-21 victory that set Warren Gatland’s men on the road to a third Grand Slam in the last eight years while Kidney’s men stuttered through their fixtures, the high point, performance-wise, coming in the first half of the delayed game against France when Ireland cut loose only to be kept scoreless in the second period and succumb to a draw.
Again in November, Irish fans had to endure a tepid first game of the Guinness Series when an interval lead was surrendered against South Africa with another point-less second half display before the men in green hit their straps against Argentina. The rugby Ireland played that day in running seven tries was sublime, described yesterday by Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards as “breathtaking” but Ireland cannot afford to wait for a second chance when championships are on the line from day one.
Kidney knows that, which is why in the immediate aftermath of that 46-24 trouncing of the Pumas, he stressed the need for his players to return in the spring and hit top gear from the off. After these two weeks in camp at Carton House, could the head coach be confident his players will hit the ground running in Cardiff today?
“I’m absolutely confident that they couldn’t have done any more in their preparation from the minute they came in,” Kidney said. “They’re in 11 days now and to come off the highs and lows of a competition they also put their hearts and souls into at provincial level. They said they would come into work and to hit the detail and they did that.
“From my own background, you know when guys are working and I wouldn’t underestimate the challenge but I know that we’re prepared for it too. They’ll always be things which you could look for if you want to nitpick and say you could do more but I can’t speak highly enough about the way they’ve gone about their business from day one. But that doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Quite. With Ireland there are always “ifs”, and if they do click today, they possess the firepower to end that three-game losing streak against a Welsh side beaten in their last seven outings, missing its first and second-choice second rows and fielding a number of players, including starting lock Ian Evans and back row Aaron Shingler, light on game time having both returned from injury.
Rob Kearney at full-back and former captain Brian O’Driscoll bolster an Ireland backline that was looking pretty potent without them against Argentina while the rookie wings Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy have the opportunity to live up to their billing as exciting, speedy backs in possession of that precious wow factor.
Likewise in the forwards, hooker Rory Best can stabilise both scrum and lineout while Sean O’Brien’s physicality and intensity boosts a back row already bristling with aggression and ball-carrying power in Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip.
It’s all there for Ireland but it’s anyone’s guess as to how quickly they will spring out of their blocks, particularly against a side that for all its woes always seems to come good once the Six Nations arrives.
“We know that we’re up against it,” Kidney said yesterday. “Wales have some colossal men. I wouldn’t be under any doubts about the size of the challenge that’s ahead of us. You’re up against a team that know how to win. The amount of experience they have from 1 to 15 is grossly different to ours, they have experience on the bench and it’s a huge challenge for us tomorrow to try and get that right.”
Amidst all the injury woes, the return of Adam Jones at tighthead is a significant boost in a front row also boasting Lions loosehead Gethin Jenkins, who will win his 100th cap today while the pace and power of all the big guns in the backline needs no introduction.
The key for Wales interim head coach Rob Howley will be whether Ospreys fly-half Dan Biggar can adequately step into the shoes of the injured Rhys Priestland and unleash those colossal backs Kidney fears. Because if Wales finally click after 10 dormant months it could prove to be a thrilling encounter and quite possibly the end for Ireland if they are late arrivals yet again to the party.
Picture: ON THE LINE: Rory Best finds target Mike McCarthy during the captain’s run at the Millennium. Picture: Dan Sheridan
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