Donal Lenihan examines the areas that will illuminate Ireland v Wales under Cardiff’s Friday night lights.
A back-row battle to salivate over
You are always on the front foot when the opposition is forced to alter its side to counteract your strengths. That is exactly what under pressure Welsh coach Rob Howley faced, with the whole of Wales clamouring for the introduction of Taulupe Faletau in an effort to combat the power, ball carrying and athleticism in the Irish back row of CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien.
Howley has resisted that temptation and stuck with two open sides in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. Ireland won’t be overly disappointed with that. In the past Warren Gatland focused his attention on key individuals in the Irish back row, namely O’Brien, with a view to negating his influence. Dan Lydiate’s chop-tackle technique, supported by a poacher in the tackle area, worked to good effect, especially in the World Cup quarter-final in Wellington in 2011.
The issue for Ireland back then was O’Brien was ploughing a bit of a lone furrow as a carrier and by stopping him on the gain line, Ireland were severely compromised. Things are different now with Stander, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong spreading the carrying load. Wales cannot afford to overload on one individual as other Irish players are there to take advantage.
Howley is sticking with the twin threat posed by Warburton and Tipuric in generating turnovers as both are excellent poachers. The problem with that is you need your front five dominating to put you on the front foot. That didn’t happen in Edinburgh. As a consequence, one might have expected Howley to combat the power of the Irish trio by introducing Faletau from the start to work in tandem with the impressive Ross Moriarty.
Wales were very slow to support the ball carrier against Scotland and the hosts pilfered a number of turnovers and penalties by targeting that area. One expects Wales will have worked on this and resource that area better this time.
Ireland’s scrum should be able to cause the Welsh problems and has the capacity to provide a perfect launchpad for their talented back row to exploit. It would be interesting to see Stander operate in the No 8 slot off some attaching scrums where he might dig out some extra yardage.
Having Heaslip and O’Brien as supporting carrying options off that first phase would be interesting. Getting Heaslip, O’Brien and Stander on the front foot will enable Ireland’s half-backs to control and direct the tempo of the game which will prove crucial.
Half back mastery
Johnny Sexton showed on his return against France all the reason why, when fit, Joe Schmidt will always pick him to start. His game management, intelligence, skill range and competitive edge add so much to the side that Sexton has an immediate effect on all those around him. He is a winner.
Given all those attributes can be applied in equal measure to his inside partner, Conor Murray. Ireland is blessed with the most complete half-back partnership in the championship. Opposite them tonight is a pairing capable of matching those deeds, but which is struggling to deliver.
So much so that Dan Biggar was under big pressure from his Ospreys teammate Sam Davies to retain the famed Welsh No 10 jersey tonight. As a result Biggar is operating under pressure, knowing that if he fails to deliver from the outset, the shepherd’s crook is coming. That must have an impact. Yet he has a history of raising his game when opposed by Sexton.
Rhys Webb has also shown commendable character in recovering from a few serious injuries and has been Wales’s most consistent performer in the Six Nations to date. He has lightning reflexes, great pace and will exploit any defensive lapses around the breakdown.
Stander and O’Brien will be charged with getting to him early and putting him under pressure. He has a tendency to look for something for himself first and Ireland need to turn that to advantage by swallowing him up and breaking the link with Biggar.
The game management of the Irish pairing was spot on against France. They have the capacity to share the workload and take pressure off each other.
If Ireland win the kicking game and control territory, they will come out on top. With a better set piece to work off, Sexton and Murray have what it takes to make that happen.
I have been a huge admirer of Alun Wyn Jones ever since he first broke into the Welsh side back in 2006. That admiration is matched in equal measure for Ireland captain Rory Best.
Having had to pick up the captain’s armband myself from one of Ireland’s greatest ever leaders in Ciaran Fitzgerald, I have a fair appreciation of the task facing Best when he followed in the footsteps of Paul O’Connell. It takes time but Best has proved an outstanding captain.
Leading Ireland to historic victories over South Africa, New Zealand and Australia over a period of six months is a feat unlikely to be matched by any Ireland captain in the future. It is also the reason why Gatland must now consider Best as a serious candidate to lead the Lions to New Zealand this summer.
One of his principal rivals for that role leads the opposition tonight. Jones’s candidature took a bit of a hammering after a key decision against Scotland to opt for a kick at goal was overturned by Biggar initially and then by Leigh Halfpenny’s reluctance to take the kick as his confidence was low.
While it didn’t sound great, it’s hardly the first time a kicker has overruled his captain.
Nonetheless it was a setback the big Welsh second row could have done without. It also highlighted the lack of leadership shown by some senior Welsh players, many of whom are off the pace at present.
The fallout from the defeats to England and Scotland has placed this Welsh side in an unenviable position. It’s backs to the wall time and Wales must find a reaction. Howley is banking on that by naming the same side that lost in Murrayfield. Jones has a massive role to play in making sure his team respond in such a way that losing just isn’t an option.
Best will be fully aware Wales are certain to deliver a performance full of physical intent, backed by a raucous crowd in a magnificent arena. He has to make sure his side fully appreciate what is coming down the track, have the composure to deal with it from the outset and the confidence to execute under intense pressure in a contest sure to be in the balance entering the final quarter.
The Lions captaincy will be the last thing on the minds of Jones or Best when they walk down the tunnel, side by side, at the head of their respective teams. Cool heads will be required to guide this ship home.
While the key moments are likely to be delivered by players other than the respective captains, the manner in which they set the ground rules for those gamebreakers will have a significant bearing on the outcome. The issue of the Lions captaincy can wait for another day. Tonight is all about winning and Best looks marginally better placed to deliver that.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved