The need for improvement is undisputed following an opening victory over Scotland but there will be more to this week’s preparation for Saturday’s Wales game than simply going at training with hammer and tongs.
A six-day turnaround between Test matches is no new phenomenon for professional rugby coaches, but the narrow timeframe still represents a challenge for them in terms of striking the right balance in both mental and physical preparation.
Ireland checked back into camp last night following a day’s well-earned recovery after Sunday’s Six Nations opener. Joe Schmidt’s players were left under no illusion that the remaining days before they take on reigning champions Wales in Dublin have to be mapped out with pinpoint precision, especially as Warren Gatland’s players will have enjoyed an extra 24 hours of recovery.
There will be a light workout today at their Carton House base, given the need for further recovery less than 48 hours on from the 28-6 victory over the Scots, leaving room for just one heavier training session on Thursday in the build-up to this eagerly anticipated clash.
Schmidt and assistant coaches Les Kiss and John Plumtree will have done much of their preparatory work with the squad for the battle of wits with Gatland’s men during their first week together at the back end of January, so the homework was largely done before attention switched to the Scots from a week out.
Wales’s 23-15 win over Italy on Saturday will have given Schmidt further pause for thought and some extra work over the last 36 hours for the video analysts led by Mervyn Owens as they dissected what was a laboured performance from the Welsh, particularly at scrum-time where they were put under the cosh by Martin Castrogiovanni and his front row.
Yet the Welsh and how to prepare for what is always an immensely physical encounter was clearly at the forefront of Schmidt’s thinking when he spoke to journalists at the media launch for the Six Nations in London 13 days ago.
“We have a six-day turnaround to Wales, even if we get past Scotland, Wales are a massive team physically,” Schmidt said.
“Just their entry into our game, while it might be in our home town and the Aviva has been a super stadium through the autumn series... that six-day turnaround with them playing Italy first up, I just think they could come with a) momentum, b) a freshness and c) a real revenge factor after what happened in the Millennium, and probably to justify maybe what happened through the summer.”
The summer, of course, was when Gatland, then British & Irish Lions head coach, dropped his bombshell by omitting Brian O’Driscoll from his side for the final Test against the Australians, preferring instead to select Jonathan Davies at outside centre.
It was only a gentle reminder from Schmidt but it underlined the continuing trend of subplots that bubble underneath this fixture. The main storyline, though, is enough to keep the Ireland coach busy this week and he was happy to analyse the back line threats, potentially including a fit-again Davies, facing his team this weekend.
“They’ve got really good players. I’d have to say I’m a bit of a fan of Scott Williams. I think he’s a super player. Jonathan Davies is as well. But if Jonathan Davies isn’t back I personally don’t think they’ll lose a lot. They might even put George North in at centre, where he played for Northampton against Leinster, because they’ve got guys on the wing like Cuthbert and Liam Williams. So they’ve got some good balance there.
“I think Leigh Halfpenny at full-back gives them a lot of experience for a young guy and he’s probably had his distractions in recent times and may be off to France. At the same time, those guys have a knack of delivering for their country.”
It works both ways, of course, and Wales have some thinking and improving to do having been tested by an Italy side who proved to be more of a threat than Scotland turned out to be against the Irish.
Schmidt will have been heartened by a creaking Welsh scrum, which should be further examined by an Irish pack who returned a 100% record on their own put-ins and caused the Scots some problems on theirs.
The set-piece functioned well on Sunday and captain Paul O’Connell’s absence from the second row due to a chest infection did not affecting the Ireland lineout, which wreaked havoc on Scottish ball.
As usual, though, it is at the breakdown where Wales will give the Irish their stiffest challenge. With an all-Lions back row, Gatland has some real heavy artillery to call on, while his midfield, particularly if Davies features alongside Jamie Roberts, is another strong unit in the tackle.
And if the game boils down to which centre pairing puts in the better display, then what better way to settle one or two old scores?
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