Sam Warburton aims to “burst Ireland’s balloon” on Sunday. The Wales captain knows their opening game of the Six Nations could prove the acid test for hopes of claiming a peculiar hat-trick.
On the last two occasions Wales have travelled to Dublin following a World Cup they won a Triple Crown in 2008 and kicked off a Grand Slam in 2012. But there have been disasters as well for Warren Gatland back at the place he once called home, not least their last visit two years ago.
The memory of that clash, when Ireland’s pack swept past a Welsh eight littered with Lions, and Johnny Sexton produced a tactical kicking master-class, still rankles.
Warburton will hammer home the importance of quelling the partisan home crowd in the Aviva Stadium in an effort to stop Ireland building a head of steam as they did in that 26-3 victory in 2014.
“That was one of the worst (performances). It wasn’t a great game to be involved in from an international point of view,” said Warburton.
“It wasn’t a good experience and it will probably put us on edge a bit more, because we expect a really good Irish team at home.
“All I remember is the Irish crowd were so loud and you could see the team feeding off that. Ireland got a good start and they kept growing through the game,” recalled Warburton.
“Trying to stop that early on will be pretty important. You want to start every international game well, but in particular on that occasion I can remember them getting their tails up as soon as the crowd started getting behind them.
“They were getting good rumbles going and becoming very competent in that.
“So I think we have to try to stick a pin in that balloon early on by becoming physical, direct and executing our game plan, to get us into the game.”
Wales found a way to stop Ireland last year in Cardiff when a remarkable defensive stand somehow kept Ireland at bay. Luke Charteris, selected alongside Alun Wyn Jones for Sunday, made a Championship record 37 tackles that day. Warburton was not far behind on 30.
He continued: “Since I’ve been involved, Ireland have always been one of the toughest fixtures in the Six Nations — every year we play them. Last year was probably the most physical Six Nations fixture I’ve played in, given the way I felt after that match.
“It’s pretty much the same year-on-year with Ireland. So, we always expect a huge amount from them.” Warburton has only played once for Cardiff Blues since the end of November following an ankle injury and switches to blindside flanker in place of the benched Dan Lydiate, out since New Year’s Day with a neck complaint. It means the far more mobile and threatening Justin Tipuric starts at openside.
Warburton said: “The lack of game-time doesn’t bother me too much, I’ve done it quite a few times before
“The intensity in training has been good and this will be my fourth trip to Ireland and you kind of know what tempo to expect, how quick it’s going to be and how physical it’s going to be.
“You know what’s coming, so from that point of view, my mind and body are ready for that.
“I will just go as hard as I can and, if I blow a gasket, I blow a gasket. We have got a British and Irish Lion [Lydiate] to come off the bench. I feel fine and I’m just looking forward to playing.”
Wales have their most experienced replacements bench in Six Nations history with more than 360 Test caps at Gatland’s disposal, including the world’s most-capped prop Gethin Jenkins.
Yet Wales carry expectancy upon their shoulders across the Irish Sea, despite Gatland hailing their hosts as favourites to clinch a third title in a row, having fared well after World Cups.
Warburton explained the phenomenon and said: “Welsh fans are well aware we won Grand Slams after the last two World Cups and I know that’s what they are fully expecting this year as well.
“But that’s what the players would set as a target, anyway. Every championship we come into, we want to win it now.
“All the good work we did together in the build-up to a World Cup does carry over because the Six Nations comes around pretty quickly.
“It felt like just the other day we left our team hotel outside London so getting back up to speed is pretty easily done. Hopefully we can also hold onto all the fitness work we did.
“We were very disappointed we came third last season — even given the circumstances — so we’ll hopefully put that right this year.”
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