Get Johnny, win a Grand Slam.
That Warren Gatland wants his Wales side to shut down Ireland half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton in Cardiff tomorrow as they bid for the third Six Nations Grand Slam of his 12-season championship reign will come as no surprise to the players or rival head coach Joe Schmidt.
Indeed, as Gatland was laying out the Welsh strategy for success against last season’s champions when the two sides collide at Principality Stadium tomorrow, the Irish boss was unveiling his selection and spelling out exactly what his squad would be facing in the white heat of the noisiest stadium in world rugby.
First, to Gatland, who benefitted from the services of both Murray and Sexton on successive and successful British & Irish Lions tours, a series win in Australia in 2013 and the drawn series with his native New Zealand four years later.
Having ended England’s quest for the Slam in Cardiff in round three, he is adopting the same strategy that did for Eddie Jones’s side.
“It will be the same approach we had with England,” Gatland said. “We put Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell under pressure and Conor and Johnny are key.
“When we’ve had success against Ireland in the past we’ve tried to put pressure on Conor and Johnny and shut their space down. There is no doubt that when Johnny gets front-foot ball he controls the game exceptionally well. We saw against England that when we did put pressure on Owen we got some success from that.
“It’s very much part of the game — you look at opposition 10s and where their strengths are and you try to negate some of those strengths. Johnny is World Player of the Year and absolutely world class. We’ve got to try and not give him as much time on the ball and not allow him to dictate the game to us. We’ve got to put him under pressure, but in saying that Ireland have world-class players all over the place and they can keep the ball for long phases.
“They build on their momentum and our discipline has to be very good. Ireland try to squeeze you for penalties and when they do get a penalty, they kick out, drive the next lineout, try and get another penalty, and kick to the 22 to build phase after phase to try and get away with points.
“That’s what they are incredibly good at doing. We’re prepared for that and a big part is being disciplined ourselves and not giving Ireland too much of a set-piece to work off.”
That Wales conceded 11 penalties last weekend in their victory over Scotland at Murrayfield had not been lost on Schmidt who last Sunday said: “They make things challenging.
“They rack up a penalty count when they are down there, at the same time.
“If we can keep that sort of pressure on like Scotland did, and we’re not chasing the game at the time, like Scotland were, then you put yourself in a more positive position to get the result.”
Yesterday, after naming a side showing four changes from the team which started the 26-14 win over France, Schmidt said he knew exactly what to expect from their hosts tomorrow.
“The same sort of combative, competitive battle that you always get with Wales. I think last year it probably suited us a little bit that it was played in bright sunshine at the Aviva and even then there wasn’t much between the two teams; there never really is too much between the two teams . . . I think it’s one of those things that will likely be a very close, competitive match again.”
As well as being both Gatland and Schmidt’s last Six Nations games before leaving their posts at the end of this autumn’s World Cup, the same applies to Ireland captain Rory Best, named yesterday to lead his team for the 64th and final time in the championship.
A knee injury to Iain Henderson suffered against France six days ago forces a change at lock, where Tadhg Beirne was yesterday named to make his Six Nations debut in his fifth Test appearance, despite doubts earlier in the week over his readiness given his lack of game time following a knee injury suffered for Munster in January. The other change in the forwards is at openside flanker, where Josh van der Flier sustained a groin injury in the win over France, allowing a return for Sean O’Brien.
There is one change in the backline, with Rob Kearney restored at full-back having been withdrawn on the morning of the French match last Sunday after reporting a tight calf. Kearney’s return for his 90th Test cap moves stand-in Jordan Larmour onto the bench.
With Beirne making his first appearance of the campaign and Kieran Marmion back from injury to do likewise as scrum-half cover, Schmidt will have used 36 players in this year’s Guinness Six Nations if the latter is sprung from the bench.
“It’s a few more than we expected to be honest,” Schmidt said. “It would have been nice to have Iain Henderson and Josh van der Flier still in the mix at least to give us a decision. It would be nice to have Robbie Henshaw in the mix for us to have a decision and a few other lads as well. But at the same time, it’s given us an opportunity and some players have really taken that opportunity and we are hopeful that the players who perform this weekend get that opportunity as well, and make the most of it.”
R Kearney (Leinster); K Earls (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Stockdale (Ulster): J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster) - captain, T Furlong (Leinster); T Beirne (Munster); J Ryan (Leinster); P O’Mahony (Munster), S O’Brien (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
N Scannell (Munster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), A Porter (Leinster), Q Roux (Connacht), J Conan (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), J Carty (Connacht), J Larmour (Leinster).