Ireland are coming up against a very different side in Wales to the ones they have brushed aside so far.
Next stop for the Irish bandwagon is Cardiff on the journey to this year’s World Cup. Buoyed by a comprehensive victory over England two weeks ago, the cult-like belief in Joe Schmidt is the only rise parallel to the confidence of the players. The Irish public firmly believe that nothing can stop the side from capturing the Grand Slam.
But in Wales, Ireland now face the biggest test to their current winning streak to date. The Millenium Stadium is a difficult place to visit at the best of times, and the circumstances surrounding this one make it all the more daunting.
The Welsh faced into this Championship with realistic ambitions of capturing a Grand Slam of their own. They were widely fancied to overcome a depleted English side on the opening night of the tournament, but ultimately fell to a 16-21 loss. England were heralded as out-foxing their neighbours, and Wales’ World Cup credentials were quickly dismissed.
But Stuart Lancaster’s master-plan was undone with a forgettable trip to Dublin. Meanwhile, Wales picked themselves back up, recording victories in Murrayfield and Stade de France. Suddenly, they are back in the hunt, and the England debacle has been consigned to experience. Wales simply did not turn up on the opening evening, and this surely negates the possibility of a no-show tomorrow afternoon.
So assuming both sides perform, where will this game be won and lost?
Ireland kicked a lot of ball to England two weeks ago, targeting the back three as suspect in the air. This plan bore fruit, winning back a large proportion of the ball further up the field.
But in George North, Leigh Halfpenny, and Liam Williams, Wales possess a far more competent footballing back three. The on-rushing Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe will not enjoy such aerial dominance this week.
Of course, Joe Schmidt will understand this, and have something up his sleeve other than a one-dimensional kicking game.
But for a team who offers up so much possession to the opposition, it is expected that Ireland, in turn, rush quickly and tackle hard. It may come as a surprise that Schmidt’s side in fact hold the worst tackle percentage in the championship. Wales boast the most dynamic outside back-line in the championship. If given space, these guys will hurt you.
Warren Gatland’s side have a simple gameplan. ‘Warren-ball’ is famed throughout the world. With a backline full of power and pace, they execute a high-tempo, off-loading game. Yes, it is predictable. But nobody has come up with a viable scheme to counter it.
Halfpenny is the World’s best goal-kicker at present. They will punish your mistakes.
One hope for Ireland is the low number of penalties conceded. It is rare this side finishes with the higher penalty count in a match.
During the Declan Kidney era, Wales were tormenters-in-chief for Ireland. Losses in the 2011 World Cup quarter final and the following year’s 6 Nations could be attributed to one thing: Wales had players who could win ball on the deck. Ireland did not.
This is certainly not the case anymore, as Seán O’Brien, Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony and many others have improved upon their defensive rucking. But in Sam Warburton, Wales possess a lethal weapon on the ground.
The penalty count will offer a big indication as to how far Ireland have progressed under Joe Schmidt.
A final worry for Ireland is the lack of noise emanating from the Welsh camp. Gatland is no stranger to raising the stakes in the build-up to a game with Ireland. This week, we have heard relatively little from the Kiwi. Is this a worry? Are the Welsh quietly going about their business?
They are a team on a mission following their capitulation at the hands of England five weeks ago. Wins in Edinburgh and Paris have seen them back on track, and will fancy a scalp tomorrow afternoon.
If Ireland win, then talks of a World Cup will no longer be premature. In the last 12 months, they will have defeated every team likely to stand in their way of a World Cup final appearance. But this is a big ‘if’.
It promises to be a tight affair in Cardiff, but home advantage may just swing it.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.