No changes either side, roof closed, Cardiff on a Friday evening. We’ve been so fully focused on that final fixture that it has been easy to lose sight of this one. Whatever about how tough or not it may be for Ireland and those dreams of a third championship in 4 years, it’s gonna be a cracking game of rugby.
As mentioned above, both coaches have opted to leave their starting 15s unchanged. A notable inclusion for Ireland is the return of Tommy Bowe to the bench, with Joe Schmidt adamant that he has been training very well. The latest injury to Andrew Trimble and some bumps and bruises to Tiernan O’Halloran and Jared Payne probably forced Schmidt’s hand a little here, but you really need only ask Craig Gilroy. The latter was fairly spectacular against an admittedly shabby Italy, whilst Bowe had a bit of a howler coming on against Scotland. Yet Schmidt has gone with the Monaghan man for the 23 jersey. If ever more proof was needed that Schmidt selects based on how they train, this is it. Aside from that swap the team remains as is and with good cause. Individual errors have been kept at a minimum thus far, though Simon Zebo is maybe a little fortunate that he has no immediate successor available after a few uncharacteristically poor moments against the French. In all, there was a team malfunction against Scotland for the first 40 minutes of the game and since then the unit has functioned cohesively.
A good friend has put it to me that Ireland maybe have a soft underbelly that the Welsh could expose and I have seen similar opinions over the last two weeks that this could be the game that Ireland get caught out (caught out again if we want to be pedantic). Whilst I don’t entirely disagree, I think this train of thought depends on what bracket you fall in regarding the opening game. Every great team on a consecutive run of form will have a bit of a blip, England had their very own against Italy two weeks ago. Whilst the Irish lapse in Murrayfield drew some deserved negativity and criticism, I personally would only see it as this squad’s blip, and let’s thank the powers that be for it to have only been for 40 minutes. This is a team that wins, the first test in South Africa last year coupled with the wins over New Zealand and Australia proves this. The Italy win was surgical in its precision and France was an arm wrestle but Ireland spent little or no time looking like they were in any danger of losing. Win by any means possible has been a hallmark of the Schmidt era and if we take a step away from the mindset of those old days of being perennial bridesmaids it is clear to see that Ireland in the last 12 months have been quite the strong force in the rugby world.
What then of the Welsh? Well, it’s all a little doom and gloom really. A loss to England in an extremely tight battle followed then by a second half drubbing from Scotland has left the Welsh team a little rattled. They are now staring down the possibility of a whitewash at home in the Six Nations for the first time in over a decade, and the staff and supporters won’t take that lightly. Much like Ireland after the Murrayfield loss, Wales have a short turnaround in which they need to fix some major problems. Two weeks is better than one, no question, but the issues Wales face are significantly greater than those Ireland had to resolve. The main talking point after Murrayfield has been that decisive moment when Alun Wyn Jones seemed to be overruled by his kickers. There will be disagreements on the pitch, always are. Kickers will say whether or not they are comfortable with the kick or not, but the captain makes the decision. The players have spoken out about the incident in the press since but it all stinks a little of trying to dampen the flames somewhat. Wales could have levelled the game 16 all at that point and there’s no telling what the resolve of the Scots might have been had Wales found themselves in the ascendency. As it was they went for a 13 man line out and got called for obstruction, penalty Scotland.
It seems like a trivial little thing to keep the focus on and I don’t mean to drag the team over the coals for one simple mistake, but these are exactly the type of margins that tomorrow’s game will be decided on. The last few meetings between these sides has seen one of them race into a fairly substantial early lead, only for the game to get more tight and hard fought towards the latter stages. As much as I worry about Ireland being under a closed roof on a Friday night in Cardiff, I would position that if they were the ones to obtain the early lead this time out then experience will prevail. Outside of Jones and the two kickers another experienced head, George North, is looking somewhat below par recently. This could lead to Wales lacking leadership not only in the middle of the pitch but also somewhat vulnerable out wide too. All of these things are of course very unlikely in the hostile atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium but if is Ireland that take the early scores, I just don’t see Wales having the steady heads to regain control of the game based on their form thus far. If they get the revival they need however, Ireland could be in a lot of trouble. There are definitely still some slight weaknesses in the Irish system that could be exploited, namely a lack of experience in the backline still and a slight unbalance to the back row too. If Wales build up the strength and confidence to take Ireland on in these areas, Joe and Co could be in for a very tough night.
Truth be told I’m far too confident of Ireland’s chances ahead of this game for my own good, whilst also being incredibly apprehensive of what Wales might churn out. They may not have had too many spectacular moments since 2015 but they’ve also not hit this low of an ebb in quite some time. When Ireland did it was in the 2013 Six Nations where they wound up with a draw against France and a win over the Welsh to their name. We all know what came next, the question is whether 2017 is the equivalent of that tournament for Wales. If it is, that very well could stand to Ireland’s favour tomorrow….though I dread to think of the onslaught we could be in for from the Welsh next year.