Ireland must keep ball out of Welsh hands

Donal Lenihan offers a fascinating tactical insight into the three key areas that will influence today's Six Nations clash at Croke Park.

1. Familiarity

WHO knows more about whom and, more importantly, who is in the better position to exploit it? Twelve of today's Irish squad toured South Africa with nine of the Welsh starting line up on last summer's Lions tour. In addition, Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards were hands-on coaches working on a daily basis with all the players. Knowledge is king in the hands of those who know how best to use it. The Welsh coaching duo are such a pairing. The question now is do they have the fire power, especially up front, to make maximum use of that insider knowledge.

With none of the Irish coaches on board in South Africa - how strange does that seem now - one would have thought the Welsh have a distinct advantage today. I am not so sure. Several of the Irish players involved in that epic test series against the Springboks are seasoned internationals, renowned for their attention to detail and an innate ability when it comes to analysing opposition players. Of equal importance is the ability of Declan Kidney not only to recognise that but also to give the players the platform to pool the information gleaned from playing alongside so many of the Welsh players. There is also the added bonus of the fact that Tommy Bowe trains and plays on a weekly basis with nine of today's Welsh squad at the Ospreys.

The biggest threat that the visitors pose will come from an incredibly talented back line, laden with individual talent. Yet Lions player of the series Jamie Roberts has failed to recapture his form since the tour. Brian O'Driscoll is in the perfect position to exploit any deficiencies he recognised in the midfield make-up of Roberts and James Hook while Gordon D'Arcy will also be keen to show that he should have played a bigger part in the tour.

Ireland look better-placed to capitalise on the lessons of last summer.

2. Tactical Approach

THE Welsh preference for keeping the ball in hand and playing with width, while admirable and aesthetically pleasing, cost them dear in this Championship. At half-time in each game, they have trailed.

Yet undaunted they recovered to outscore the Scots and the French by

22-6 and 20-6 respectively. While that was enough to squeeze them over the line against Scotland they left too much ground to make up against Les Blues and paid the price. It does however reinforce Declan Kidney's point this week that they play to the 80th minute. Their problem is they have been found wanting from the 1st to 40th minute. In their search for the beautiful game, Wales have been tactically naive. Experienced back rower Jonathan Thomas said as much after the French game when admitting they need to be a little more pragmatic, play territory and use Stephen Jones to put them into the right positions on the field.

Ireland, after all, won a Grand Slam last season by adopting such an approach. For that reason, I expect that Wales will kick a lot more in this game and refine their approach so that at least they will still be in the hunt by half-time. Ireland will also need to be flexible with their game plan in the expectation that Wales will certainly approach this game with a different blueprint to their most recent outings. From that perspective, Jonathan Sexton is likely to face his biggest test on the international stage to date. Adaptability with and without the ball will be the key to negotiating a safe passage through this intriguing test match.

3. The lineout

WARREN Gatland was the first opposition coach to recognise the importance of the Irish line-out and set out to lessen its influence.

Two years ago he devised a game plan which precluded Wales kicking directly to touch if at all possible. That season Ireland averaged eighteen line-outs per game, but they were reduced to just eight against the Welsh. It had a direct bearing on the outcome of the game which the Welsh won by 16-12.

England adopted a similar tactical approach in Twickenham reducing Ireland to a minuscule five throws from which they somehow still managed to conjure up two tries. The Welsh lineout statistics this season make dire reading (67% return on their own throw). There have been mitigating circumstances with Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies forming the fourth different second row partnership in as many games and returning Lion Matthew Rees their third different starting hooker. In trying to develop any level of understanding under pressure, that is a disaster.

Therefore, it's an area Ireland must attack. If the Welsh decide to kick long and parallel to the touch line, which I strongly suspect they will - thus denying Ireland line-outs of their own - then Paul O'Connell and co must dismantle the Welsh throw and use that source of ball as an attacking threat. It can be very disconcerting as a lineout operator when you are denied early throws in order to play yourself into the game. O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan coped brilliantly with that aspect in Twickenham, boosted by the confidence of pinching a few early English deliveries. They may well be restricted to the same role today but if they can nick a few of those Welsh deliveries early on, an already creaking platform could well collapse.

The less ball that this exciting Welsh backline receive, the better from Ireland's perspective.

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