No space for slow start against expansive Welsh

Whichever way you viewed Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations opening-round win over Scotland seven days ago, there is little arguing with the verdict that Andy Farrell’s players simply have to do better this afternoon against Wales.

No space for slow start against expansive Welsh

Whichever way you viewed Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations opening-round win over Scotland seven days ago, there is little arguing with the verdict that Andy Farrell’s players simply have to do better this afternoon against Wales.

A week on from that 19-12 victory at the Aviva Stadium, there remain divisions about the level of success achieved by Ireland under their new coach.

Certainly there are those, including the Irish squad and management, who took the win as a) an important first step in leaving behind the miseries of 2019 and b) an encouraging display of character, grit, and determination to overcome a Scottish side firing on newly-acquired belligerence and physicality.

Others, however, viewed the one-try to nil win as a lucky escape for a conservative selection against a wasteful Scottish attack.

Either way, the Wales team being brought to Dublin by Wayne Pivac this afternoon will pose a much stiffer challenge than the game but toothless Scots.

Fresh from a 42-0 walkover against a desperately poor Italy in Cardiff last Saturday, the defending Grand Slam champions have a record-equalling eighth consecutive championship victory in their sights and a newly expansive game plan in their back pockets.

Ireland will have to step up their physicality to start winning the collisions they struggled with against the Scots and start improving their ability to get over the gainline.

They will have to tighten up the scrum that failed to impress last week’s referee Mathieu Raynal and look for a fairer handling of the breakdown from today’s official, Romain Poite.

And they will come into this Test knowing there is already a vocal contingent of doubters in the media that will need to be silenced with a much-improved performance.

Having made many references to having only five on-field sessions together in the build-up to the Scottish game, an extra week on the training pitches at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre in Abbotstown, west Dublin will require Ireland to make incremental advances in round two.

The problem for Farrell is that the Welsh are already a week further down the line. Former Scarlets head coach Pivac’s first camp since succeeding Warren Gatland at the end of Wales’s run to the World Cup semi-finals came less than a month after the squad’s return from Japan and ended with a game against the Barbarians in Cardiff in November.

The Ireland boss acknowledged this week how beneficial that had been for the Welsh.

“I spoke to Wayne at the Six Nations launch and he said it was very, very useful,” Farrell said.

“Obviously, attack (structures) take a while to get a grip of and he’s coached most of the boys there, so there’s a bit of a head-start there.

“He was happy with and grateful for the week to get a decent start but he said he wasn’t quite happy with the other side of the ball and I thought defence was excellent at the weekend.

“After a performance, you get to fix a few things and I thought they did that at the weekend defensively.”

Of course, it follows that Ireland should benefit from their extra time together this week, as Farrell accepted, though not unequivocally.

“Of course, the quality of the team we’re playing against — the game will take its own course as we always know it will.

"Recognising opportunities for us, the opportunities that arise, we need to be better as far as that’s concerned.

“Will they arise because we’re playing against a good side — only time will tell.”

Ireland are a good side as well, let’s not forget, and have home advantage in a stadium that has witnessed just one Six Nations defeat since 2013.

Yet if anyone can realign those statistics this season it is Wales and as they showed in Cardiff last March when it needed an overtime try from Jordan Larmour to save Irish blushes and Welsh whitewash, the men in red are not flat-track, fair-weather bullies.

With Schmidt electing to keep the Principality Stadium roof open rather than Gatland’s preference for playing under cover, it was the home side that coped best with the downpour that arrived during the match in a 25-7 schooling for the visitors as Wales completed the Grand Slam in style.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton was only half-joking on Thursday when he suggested the rains were karma for keeping the roof open and with Storm Ciara threatening to batter the Aviva today with rain and winds of 40 to 55 kilometres an hour, that gives Ireland another area for improvement.

Sexton, who will today win his 90th Ireland cap, also recognised his side have to be quick out of the traps because another slow start could prove their downfall.

They got away with it against Scotland but Wales’ victory 11 months ago was a perfect example of the difficulty of playing catch-up.

“Last week we were ready to go but we were chasing shadows after soaking the first two collisions for about eight or nine phases,” Sexton said.

“Scotland always play with good shape and width, a lot of pace in their team. It’s the need to make good contacts in those opening phases.

“We weren’t nervous, just a little inaccurate and then we settled into the game a bit. But throughout the game, we weren’t clinical enough.

“The start of the game is always important.

“Last year Wales took a seven-point lead and then a soft penalty for sealing off a ruck, 10-0, and then another soft penalty, 13-0, and suddenly... and we had a couple of chances to score at the start of the game as well, so yeah, massive in the conditions and hopefully we can start well.”

The ‘things to do’ list is a long one for Ireland and Wales will be in no mood to help them tick all the boxes.

It should make for another intriguing encounter between these two old foes but do not be surprised if a little gloss comes off that excellent home record.

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