RBS SIX NATIONS:
Ireland v Wales
Intensity, X-factor, accuracy and any other rugby buzz word you care to drop into conversation – you say it and Ireland need to bring it into play at the Aviva Stadium today if they are to send Wales packing back to the valleys with their Grand Slam ambitions in tatters.
Forget their shaky start in victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium last Saturday, this is a very, very good, hungry and well-drilled Wales side coming to Dublin. Their head coach Warren Gatland has them swaggering like the champions they are in the hope they can land a historic third championship title in a row and has filled them with such belief over the last six seasons that they believe they are kings of the world, or at least the northern half of it.
There has certainly been a strut in their step when they pack the bags and leave Cardiff for pastures foreign and aside from title hopes, Wales are chasing a sixth successive away win in the Six Nations that will equal the record of France, the team to whom they last lost back in 2011.
Travelling to Dublin, where they won last time around in 2012 thanks to a controversial late penalty from Leigh Halfpenny, will hold no fears for a side containing 12 British & Irish Lions in their starting XV, seven of whom are in the forwards pack, particularly as they have got their traditional opening-day wobble out of the way and come out of it with a win.
Last year that wasn’t the case when Ireland visited Cardiff, caught them napping with a spell-binding 50-minute, three-try blitz and then hung on for dear life as Wales threw the kitchen sink at them.
Their arsenal is just as potent this year and their physicality just as impressive with a backline as big as many packs and both Jamie Heaslip and defence coach Les Kiss yesterday emphasised the importance of staying disciplined and smart in order to counteract Welsh power.
Ireland had a slow enough start to the championship themselves last weekend before puling away from a decidedly average Scotland side for a 28-6 victory and Heaslip recognised that beating Wales will require a big improvement on that performance. Yet the No.8 said Ireland need not fear their opponent’s bigger frames and extra kilos.
“As physical as rugby is, smarts get you a long way in the game,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter about the size of them, if you get your technique right and you have your buddy beside you you go for it.
“We can negate that, we have to be physical and we have to commit to it, especially the way they play. They make no bones about it, they play a physical game, they play to their strengths and we have to match that, but we have to be smart as well in when they have the ball how we’re defending and when we have it, how to kind of play to our strengths.
“I’m not going to give the game plan away, but we do have to be smart.”
Gatland’s opposite number, Joe Schmidt, will expect nothing less and will first look to his set-piece, which should have the beating of the Welsh, to provide the platform for victory. Discipline and mental strength are key to a consistently good 80 minutes from Ireland and there is no room for sloppiness in any department, not least the kicking contest on a potentially mucky Aviva day.
“We’ve talked about Leigh Halfpenny’s kicking, the type of pressure they like to put in that area,” Kiss said. “They like to kick long, keep the ball in, preferring not to go for line-outs and challenge you to make the type of decisions you need to put yourself under pressure.
“You’re going to need to have a real good focus about what’s required in those moments because they get in a tackle, load up their defensive line and launch into you with their line speed.
“If you’re not making smart decisions, you can get yourself into trouble. We’ve addressed that. We haven’t done a lot of work on the field because we’ve had a short turnaround. But, we’ve talked about it as a group, how we can handle that.
“Hopefully, we can turn up and do the right thing.”
Anyone who has watched Ireland over the last few years knows this side has the potential to do the right thing, the trouble has been knowing when to expect it. Which, in the wake of a roller-coaster November and a stuttering start to 2014, makes today’s game a massive progress test for the opening chapter of Schmidt’s tenure.
Come through this one and Ireland can adopt a little Welsh swagger in their step as they turn towards Twickenham and Paris. If they play to the sum of their parts, there should be heads held high and chests puffed out when Schmidt’s squad leave the Aviva this evening with an important win notched up.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved