Preview: Ireland v Wales
Preview: Ireland v Wales
Ireland take on Wales in what is the pick of the Six Nations fixtures this weekend, in terms of where this 2014 Championship could end up.
Both teams got off to winning starts, against Scotland and Italy respectively, but realise that a loss on Saturday would dent their title aspirations. Defeat will also be a timely psychological blow in the penultimate Six Nations before the World Cup where they may meet later in the competition. It's one of many subplots.
Now, rewind twelve months and it was a green day in Cardiff as that clinical start from Declan Kidney's side left Wales scrambling to recover from a 0-20 deficit. Put simply, it was an excellent 30-minute spell from Ireland but boy were they made to work hard to hold on to that 22-30 win.
Wales lost that opener despite having almost twice as much possession as their visitors in a defeat that was their first to Ireland in three years. However, they are known to start the Six Nations slowly - last week is evidence of that - so facing Ireland in Round Two allows them time to gel.
But here, ahead of schedule, comes our prediction that Ireland will have too much at home to be beaten en route to their first back-to-back wins in Rounds One and Two in five years of the Championship. Coincidentally, 2009 was the year of their Grand Slam, so a win on Saturday and those pre-tournament 12/1 bookmaker odds will begin to look pretty good.
Returning to boost their hopes of victory are Paul O'Connell and Gordon D'Arcy, with both having been in strong form over the past four months. Look up synonyms for talisman in a rugby dictionary and you would find O'Connell. His comeback cannot be downplayed, with no disrespect whatsoever to Dan Tuohy. D'Arcy meanwhile played very well during November and his familiarity alongside Brian O'Driscoll is also a fillip for Joe Schmidt.
Speaking of BOD, the overuse of what is, as Warren Gatland called it, "lazy journalism" regarding the Lions selection for the third Test is set to dominate the television build-up. We side with the view that this subplot has been completely overhyped. 23 against 23 and two coaches going up against each other is the cold hard fact in deciding who takes the bragging rights. Let's hope the post-match interviews don't further scrape the barrel.
As we say, there are bigger fish to fry in Dublin as battles all over the field add intrigue. Cian Healy is certainly in the top five loosehead props in world rugby right now and his tussle with Adam Jones is going to be interesting. His work in open play sets him apart from other props while on the other side of the scrum it's Mike Ross against a returning Gethin Jenkins. Lions duo Rory Best and Richard Hibbard will also clash in the hooking spot.
Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny, Conor Murray and Mike Phillips; the list goes on as Wales look for a record-equalling sixth consecutive away victory in the Six Nations. But, their last loss in the Championship of course came against...Ireland. Subplots, we did warn you.
Players to watch:
For Ireland: Dan Tuohy filled in admirably in the absence of Paul O'Connell but the green giant returns in Dublin this Saturday in a big psychological boost to the hosts. Not only will it lift Ireland and their supporters, it will surely have an effect on Wales. O'Connell's presence in a Munster jersey this season has been massive and we expect exactly the same impact when he pulls on the international shirt. Of course the cameras will be on Brian O'Driscoll and Warren Gatland whether we like it or not, so BOD's showing will be of interest.
For Wales: As was the case with Ireland, we plump for a returning player as our one to keep an eye on. Sam Warburton is back for Wales as he takes the place of Justin Tipuric on the openside. His jackaling ability could prove instrumental and if referee Wayne Barnes sides with him early, Wales will profit; if not, Ireland will have the ascendancy and also points.
Head-to-head: The battle at nine whets the appetite as the in-form Conor Murray goes up against the confident Mike Phillips. Murray was again impressive last week while Phillips' physicality will always play its part in games. Murray though seems to get the best out of Jonathan Sexton and, unlike Phillips, doesn't sometimes get sidetracked at vital moments.
2013: Ireland won 30-22 in Cardiff
2012: Wales won 23-21 in Dublin
2011: Wales won 22-10 in Wellington
2011: Wales won 19-13 in Cardiff
2010: Ireland won 27-12 in Dublin
2009: Ireland won 17-15 in Cardiff
2008: Wales won 16-12 in Dublin
2007: Ireland won 19-9 in Cardiff
2006: Ireland won 31-5 in Dublin
2005: Wales won 32-20 in Cardiff
2004: Ireland won 36-15 in Dublin
Prediction: Wales looked a tad off the pace last week and Ireland will exploit that under Schmidt. With Murray, Healy and O'Connell on home soil, let's go for an Ireland win by 5!
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones (c), 4 Andrew Coombs, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 James Hook, 23 Liam Williams.
Date: Saturday, February 8
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), JP Doyle (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)