Ozer McMahon previews this weekend’s crunch Six Nations fixture between Ireland and Wales.
As far as playing on emotions go, one would struggle to find a nation more inclined to do so than Ireland. It is a possible reason as to why the favourite tag never rests easily on the shoulders of those who tog out in the green jersey. Raw passion and emotion is the oxygen that fuels the fire that burns inside the nations rugby players. When they have something to fight for they are men possessed.
Everyone remembers the tears that streamed down John Hayes’ face during Amhrán na bhFiann when England visited Croke Park for the first time, and lest we forget Paul O’Connell’s rousing “fear of God” speech. Most of the stand out performances produced by modern Irish teams have come prefaced by a team looking to prove a point, or create history. This weekend has all the hallmarks of such an occasion. It is a seminal weekend in the outcome of this season’s championship.
Over the course of the last four years or so, the Ireland-Wales relationship has soured, and become an intense rivalry. Given Warren Gatland’s previous history with Ireland and his relationship with the players since he has become the leader of both Wales and the Lions, many Irish people harbour a great deal of ill will towards the Kiwi. Unfortunately for those supporters, Gatland has had more to smile about in recent times than them.
Alun Wyn Jones joked that “we’re not going to Syria” during the week when asked what sort of hostile reception he was expecting in Dublin on Saturday. That will only stoke the flames in the hearts of the supporters in the stands. There is ample reason for the fans to urge the players to deliver a performance against the defending champions. After all, it is Brian O’Driscoll’s last Six Nations campaign and his penultimate home game in a green jersey. It is also Joe Schmidt’s first real competitive test as Ireland coach and he has a chance to lay down a marker in a winnable tournament. Oh…and the supporters will be baying for the blood of the man who dropped Drico for the final Lions test last summer. The country almost came to a standstill that week and the debate still rages as to whether Gatland made the correct decision or not.
Ireland will need to call on every resource in their armoury to be victorious and remain on track for a Grand Slam come Saturday evening. The level of performance will need to be upped considerably from the Scotland outing, and despite the six-day turnaround, that’s certainly achievable. Wales have mastered the art of building momentum as the Six Nations moves along and if Leinster’s growth under Schmidt was anything to go by, Ireland should be able to produce a similar upward trajectory as they progress from week to week. Everywhere on the field will produce intriguing matchups and you can be sure there will be no quarter given. The individual battles will be as fascinating as the collective war.
In recent seasons the breakdown has evolved to such an extent that whoever comes out on top in this sector usually goes a long way to deciding to eventual outcome. After coming off the bench against the Italians last weekend Welsh captain Sam Warburton, one of three changes, is restored to the team in the place of the unfortunate Justin Tupiric. He takes his place in an all Lions Test backrow of Dan Lydiate and the recently renamed Taulupe Faletau. Ireland retain the same backrow and in a perverse way the absence of Sean O’Brien may prove a help rather than a hindrance this weekend. O’Brien is undoubtedly the fulcrum of Ireland’s attacking play, and Wales know that. In recent years, most notably in that thoroughly disappointing World Cup Quarter Final outing in 2011, the Welsh have used Lydiate essentially as a man-marker on O’Brien.
The Racing Metro man is undoubtedly the best tackler in the Northern Hemisphere and his constant shackling of O’Brien has dented Irish ambitions in the past. Without O’Brien in the team it’s not as obvious as to who will carry them for the hard yards, therefore perhaps limiting the effect Lydiate can have in the tackle area. As for Ireland, the presence of Chris Henry in tandem with the ferocious and ever improving Peter O’Mahony gives Ireland an aggressive, and defensively solid, presence at the breakdown. Along with Rory Best who is the premier breakdown hooker in the tournament, it contains all the ingredients to deliver an absorbing contest.
Elsewhere up front Paul O’Connell’s recovery from a chest infection sees him back from the start in place of Dan Tuohy. The Ulster lock really put his hand up with a terrific performance last weekend and it must have given Joe Schmidt serious cause for thought as to who would partner his captain. He reverts to the bench as Devin Toner edges the call but will need an improved showing to justify selection. While the battle in the front row at scrum time will be keenly contested in a bid to establish a platform.
The Welsh possess a hulking array of talent in their back line where they will try to overpower their physically smaller opponents. Yet don’t expect the reinstated pair of O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy to take a backward step. After over a decade together at all levels the Leinster partnership have an almost telepathic relationship, particularly in defence. Thy will need to call on it as despite the fact Johnathan Davies hasn’t been deemed fit enough for this fixture after a lengthy lay off, Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams are a formidable duo. O’Driscoll registered 24 tackles against Scotland last weekend, something similar maybe again required this time out. Especially with the clinical Alex Cuthbert and the exhilarating George North on the wings. Wales play revolves hugely around the power in their backline so expect to see these two coming off their wings to try and burst holes through the heart of the Irish defence at every opportunity. Cuthbert is still raw but given a sniff of the try line he is a hard man to deny, while North is en route to global stardom on the back of a terrific Lions tour. While manning the fullback berth is the ultra-dependable Leigh Hlfpenny, who will punish any Irish indiscretions from the tee. Luke Fitzgerald remains side-lined so Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney retain their starting berths beside Rob Kearney in the Irish back three. Neither have the sparkling X-factor of those currently injured, or not considered for selection, but are honest and hardworking, while Trimble in particular will relish the physical confrontations ahead.
Glancing through the line ups it’s very hard to see a considerable gulf in class between the teams, with the exception of half back. In Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton Ireland have the most rounded combination in the tournament and look to hold a key advantage in this pivotal area. Like Munster colleague O’Mahony, Murray is growing into the number 9 jersey with great assurance, he delivered a highly effective showing against the Scots. His box kicking is coming on in leaps and bounds, and while he didn’t nail them all perfectly, there are obvious improvements in this area of his game. This ability takes the pressure off Sexton, which is an invaluable attribute for a scrum half to possess. His physicality also proves physical both in attack and defence. Alongside him Sexton is key to Ireland and Joe Schmidt’s attacking game plan. In opposition they face a declining Mike Phillips and Rhys Preistland who can produce the goods, but doesn’t do it frequently enough and there are question marks surrounding his temperament when on the back foot.
The away side has come up trumps in five of the last seven clashes between these two in the 6 Nations. Ireland have the fire in their bellies, and in front of what should be a raucous crowd , should envelope the Welsh in flames. It will be tight, but Ireland should be able to buck the recent trend and deliver a home victory.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.
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