Wales assistant coach Rob Howley has hailed fit-again Ireland No.8 Jamie Heaslip as "an exceptional ball-carrier" ahead of his Test match return in tomorrow’s RBS 6 Nations showdown at the Millennium Stadium.
Heaslip has made a rapid recovery after cracking three vertebrae in his back during Grand Slam-chasing Ireland’s 18-11 victory over France in Dublin four weeks ago.
And he will line up in an Ireland side seeking its third successive win against Wales, and record 11th in a row, under coach Joe Schmidt at the expense of all opponents.
“He (Heaslip) has experience and quality, and I am not surprised he has made it,” Howley said. “He has shown a lot of resilience, coming back like he has. He is an exceptional ball-carrier and will offer a running threat in terms of their gain-line against us. We will be wary of the 8/9/10 axis, which is quality and used to playing with each other for Ireland and the (British and Irish) Lions.”
Heaslip’s reappearance in the Test arena comes as Ireland aim to complete the penultimate stage of what could be a first Six Nations clean sweep since their 2009 Grand Slam.
After Wales, Scotland await at Murrayfield on Saturday week, and Schmidt’s men will arrive in Cardiff on the back of a convincing 19-9 success against England last time out. Irish half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray tormented England through a brilliant exhibition of tactical kicking, and their battle with similarly in-form Wales nine and 10 Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar promises to have a major bearing on the outcome tomorrow.
Howley added: “Johnny is an exceptional player. He is very meticulous, and we all know what a quality kicker he is and his ability to get the best out of the back-line.
“It’s a great match-up in the half-backs. You have got the experience against the lesser experience of Dan and Rhys, but you have players who are all playing well.
“We need to score tries to beat Ireland on Saturday, and likewise they need to score against us. What we don’t want it to come down to is a kicking feast, in terms of penalties.
“The key factor will be territory and possession.
“If one side is clinical in attack and creates the opportunities, you have to take them. That’s the challenge for the Welsh XV on Saturday. The one thing we need to dominate is territory and possession. That’s key against Ireland, and they will be looking at those statistics as well.
“If you have got possession, you don’t have to defend the aerial battle and the astute tactical kicking by Conor and Johnny. Keeping hold of the ball for long periods of time will put pressure on their defensive line.”
That Wales have only twice beaten Ireland at home in the 31 years is likely to be the most perplexing anomaly in Test rugby. And while Wales know only too well what is heading their way tomorrow, they remain at a loss to explain their remarkable jinx in Cardiff.
Howley admitted: “I wouldn’t have a clue to explain it. As a player I won at Lansdowne Road and lost at the Arms Park. It is what it is, for whatever reason. But this weekend the players won’t be thinking about history, it’s about here and now. It’s always a privilege for coaches and players to be at the Millennium Stadium. It’s our stadium, our crowd.”
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