By Phil Rice
Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt is nothing if not focused and detail-orientated, and true to form at the conclusion of the recent facile Irish victory over Italy, the New Zealander immediately turned his attention to the threat posed by Wales, Ireland’s opponents on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.
At the post match briefing he stated: “Wales will be a whole different scenario, they play a lot of territory, force you to bring the ball back into a whole line of defenders.
They are a very good attacking side as well as defence and they squeeze you and force errors.” Ireland’s recent Six Nations record against Wales has been less than impressive. They have failed to win for the past three years, with two losses and a draw.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland, of course, once held that position with Ireland and he seems to revel in making life uncomfortable for his erstwhile employers.
Last season at the Principality Stadium, Wales derailed Ireland’s Six Nations hopes with an excellent performance over a less than impressive Ireland.
Gatland has been critical of Ireland’s tactics in the recent past, saying that their attack is too narrow and predictable, and easily defended. Schmidt was riled by these comments saying: “Warren is entitled to his opinion, I just don’t happen to agree with him.”
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 22, 2018
You get the feeling that Schmidt would get considerable pleasure from defeating his fellow New Zealander’s team.
Wales began this year’s Six Nations bemoaning the loss of a number of their key players, but despite this they trounced a much-fancied Scotland, 34- 7, and followed that with a narrow and controversial 12-6 defeat at the hands of England.
World Rugby subsequently took the unusual step of apologising for the TMO’s error in disallowing a perfectly good Welsh try during the match.
After a poor autumn series Wales have shown they are definite contenders for this year’s Championship and Schmidt will be aware of the threat they pose.
The result at Twickenham not only shows that Wales are a dangerous side but also showed that England are not unbeatable even at their own fortress.
However, Schmidt will not be concerned by the potential Championship decider on St. Patrick’s Day at this stage.
His philosophy has always been not to look beyond the next game. Wales expect some of their star players to return from injury for this weekend’s game. Dan Biggar, Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Toby Faletau all return as does George North, who was used as a substitute against England.
Ireland have their own injury worries to contend with. The prognosis on Tadhg Furlong’s hamstring strain, picked up against Italy, is good and he expects to be available to face Wales.
However, the news regarding centre Robbie Henshaw is less favourable. His dislocated shoulder from the same match is likely to keep him out for at least the rest of the Six Nations and possibly for the remainder of the season.
This is a significant blow both for Ireland and for Leinster’s hopes in the European Champions Cup.
Henshaw was having an outstanding game against Italy and injured his shoulder scoring his second try of the match.
He is a crucial component in Ireland’s backline and will be sorely missed. After the Italian game Schmidt hinted at possibly pairing Munster’s Chris Farrell alongside Bundee Aki in the centre, saying the pair performed very well against Argentina in the autumn.
With Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose injured the cupboard is fairly bare in terms of outside centres. The good news is that Ringrose is expected to line out for Leinster this week and will hopefully be available for Ireland in two weeks.
Since Josh van der Flier’s long-term injury, sustained during the France opener, Dan Leavy has shown up well at open side flanker and he is likely to retain his place this weekend. Schmidt has the difficult decision as to whom to partner Iain Henderson with in the second-row.
James Ryan, who had an outstanding game against France, is fully recovered from injury, however, Devin Toner continued his excellent season with a dominant line out performance against Italy, and quality possession from that source will be vital.
Saturday’s match is likely to be closely fought. As is frequently the case in modern Test match rugby, the team which succeeds at the breakdown will win the spoils.
Cardiff ’s Josh Navidi has been a revelation this season, so much so that Lion’s openside Justin Tipuric has been relegated to the bench. Navidi’s tackling and his ability to win turnover ball has been crucial to Wales success to date.
Having Dan Biggar back at fly-half is also a big plus for Gatland. The Osprey’s man has developed into a very effective play-maker and although he will miss the passing ability of his injured club scrum-half Rhys Webb, his replacement Gareth Davies has filled in very efficiently and is a real threat around the fringes.
— Vodafone Ireland (@VodafoneIreland) February 22, 2018
Ireland’s half-backs have been in dominant form in the two matches to date. Apart from Johnny Sexton’s heroics in Paris his reading of the game and his precision kicking have been world class.
Conor Murray scored a superb try against Italy and demonstrated his ability to dictate play with his accurate box kicking. These two will hold the key to Ireland’s success.
Ireland are riding on the crest of a ten match unbeaten run and they have never lost at the Aviva in the Six Nations since Schmidt took over.
If the pack can get parity up front the home team should prevail and maintain the dream of a St. Patrick’s Day showdown for the Championship.