Of all the lessons Warren Gatland purports to have learned since Wales last lifted the Six Nations title, the biggest and most painful was that served up in Dublin 13 months ago.
In the opening game of the defence of back-to-back titles, Wales were swept aside by the emerald juggernaut that was Ireland’s pack that day as Paul O’Connell’s side mauled the Dragons to within an inch of their lives.
Two years earlier, George North and Jamie Roberts had laid waste to the Aviva Stadium; this time they barely touched the ball in anger.
The introspection that followed was not limited to those on the pitch.
Gatland and his management team, many of whom had been involved with the victorious British & Irish Lions the previous summer, were also forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Gatland and his young charges had simply failed to deliver. They cannot afford a repeat this week and are unlikely to do so given their gradual improvement during the tournament.
However even this week, more than a year later, the scars of that humbling defeat still linger.
“From a coaching point of view, we looked at ourselves after that defeat and were not happy with our preparation,” admitted forwards coach Robin McBryde.
“We weren’t pointing fingers, we were looking at ourselves as to how we could have prepared better for that game. We didn’t have the intensity leading up to the match and were exposed by their driving game.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow because we were beaten hands down. It was the first time in a long time that we really hadn’t lived up to expectation. It was tough but we learned about how to prepare better.
“We’ve worked hard on the driving lineout and showed against France what we’re capable of doing.”
Wales followed Ireland’s lead in beating France and the 20-13 victory in Paris has revived hopes of repeating their feat of 2013, when they became the first side to lift the Six Nations title after losing their opening game — against Ireland.
“That was probably the most satisfying moment I have had in the game,” said No.8 Taulupe Faletau. “After we lost that first game, everyone was on our back, knocking us down and writing us off. So to come back as a team and not only win the title but do so with a great win against England at the Millennium Stadium, it was pretty special. If we could repeat that, it would be an even bigger achievement, but there are still tough games to go.”
Those tough games begin in Cardiff against Ireland and key players Sam Warburton and Dan Biggar are expected to be passed fit. Though McBryde, a Lion in 2001, admits Wales will have to have their “wits” to beat the champions.
“Ireland are a very formidable outfit, as they’ve proven. They didn’t show too much against Italy, and England didn’t help themselves with their lack of discipline but Ireland played a solid all-round game,” said McBryde.
“They have such a hugely tactical approach that you have to have your wits about you playing them in regards to their technical approach to the game.
“But our performance against France was a reflection of what the players have been doing in training and some of the execution and accuracy under pressure, which we speak about constantly, came to fruition.
“We’ve set the standard and now we’ve got to do it again.”
O’Connell, set to win his 100th cap, is not the only player set to reach a significant milestone as a result of his remarkable longevity.
Gethin Jenkins, who began this campaign as Wales’ leading cap holder, is expected to make his 119th Test appearance and so equal Jason Leonard as the game’s most-capped prop.
Should he make it to Rome on the final weekend, he will stand alone. “Gethin is an amazing professional both on and off the field and is very disciplined,” said McBryde.
“He has come under pressure from a hugely unfair perception over his scrummaging so I was delighted for him, more than anyone else, with the way the scrum went in Paris last week. That was on top of what he does around the pitch.
“He realises he is getting long in the tooth and so opportunities are not going to come around for much longer. So he is grasping the occasion more so in this tournament than ever before.”
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