Ahead of Ireland’s crucial matchup with Wales on Saturday, Fergus Carroll examines the key areas that will decide the outcome of the match and the longevity of Ireland’s Grand Slam dream.
With two games remaining in the 2015 Six Nations Championship, Ireland stand as the only team still with the chance to take the Grand Slam, an outcome that would fuel the fire of expectation ahead of this year’s World Cup. The most immediate and dangerous challengers to Ireland are Wales, whose hard fought win over France has them back in the running to win the Championship. Ireland are the on form team but Wales have the players and experience to hold Ireland’s winning streak at ten and ensure the wait for a third Irish Grand Slam continues.
Joe Schmidt has made only one change to the side that defeated England, with Jamie Heaslip returning to the starting 15 after a remarkable recovery to the three fractured vertebrae he suffered after a knee in the back from Pascal Papé. Johnny Sexton starts after recovering from the hamstring injury that forced him off early while both Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne passed concussion protocols. Meanwhile Paul O’Connell, who has yet to confirm whether this will be his last Six Nations, will earn his 100th cap against the team he made his debut against in 2002. This means that Schmidt is in a position to choose his strongest team for only the second time this campaign and such is the strength in depth that Cian Healy remains on the bench with Jack McGrath retained at loosehead. Warren Gatland has made no changes to his team that were victorious in Paris and they will enter this weekend’s game looking to avenge their disappointing their 26-3 defeat to Ireland last year.
In this game last year, Ireland utilised their strong kicking game that has become synonymous with the team under Schmidt to put the ball in behind the aggressive Welsh defence. Kicks to touch were mixed in with shallower kicks that allowed Irish backs to compete directly to touch. Indeed the build up to Ireland’s opening try last year saw Rob Kearney win a high ball contest with Leigh Halfpenny, with Johnny Sexton immediately putting a clever kick into the space from where the Welsh full-back would have been covering and forcing Rhys Priestland to take the ball into touch himself. From the resulting line-out Wales were unable to prevent the Irish maul from crossing the whitewash, with the resulting conversion giving Ireland a 13-0 lead going into halftime.
This time around Wales will be expecting the aerial bombardment that will undoubtedly be sent their way, with Gatland admitting he expects ‘a lot of ball in the air’. It is a wholly other matter to deal with this however. In England’s build-up to their match against Ireland they were said to have placed particular attention to kick receptions and drafted in Nowell ahead of May due to his supposed stronger prowess in this field. Despite this, England were unable to compete with the Irish chasers in this aspect of the game and in the passage of play leading to the Irish try there were three Irish kicks, including the final chip to Henshaw which the English defender’s failed to deal with adequately. Much has been made of the alleged benefits of the Irish players having a background in Gaelic football but the more likely benefit is that from 11 to 14, the Irish backline has experience of playing at fullback.
In Wales, Ireland will face a stronger adversary in the kicking game with all of the Welsh back three comfortable under the high ball. Ireland may look to address this by looking to find touch more often, or by targeting a specific player who they feel is a weak link just as Sexton sought to kick to George Ford early last time out. Ultimately however, it is likely the Irish team will continue as they have so far this campaign and expect the likes of Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo to chase after Sexton’s bombs and force their counterparts into mistakes. If Ireland can enjoy aerial superiority, then they will be well positioned to take the game to Wales.
As indicated above, a key component to Ireland’s success in this match in 2014 was the lineout and the resulting driving maul to Wales appeared almost incapable of halting. This tactic was directly responsible for both the Irish tries, with the second coming in the dying moments of the match as Ireland drove forward the best part of 20 metres before Paddy Jackson was released under the posts. For as much as Ireland looked to utilise the driving maul against Wales, it has been used sparingly recently and England effectively disrupted the maul cleanly (and illegally) on a few occasions. Ireland has also looked for quicker ball from the lineout on many occasions and it will be interesting to see how the opening moments of the match pan out in this regard.
In Luke Chateris and Alun Wyn Jones, Wales have two highly experienced line-out operators, with the latter playing an especially prominent role in Wales’ strong outing in France. Wales will be looking to ensure they are not as embarrassed in the line-out as twelve months ago so it is perhaps unlikely for Ireland to expect such dominance this time around. However the Irish line-out has been performing at such a high level recently, having established supremacy against England here in the last game that saw Ireland disrupting the English ball and not merely securing their own feed, and so it would take a huge performance from Wales to stop Ireland here. Rather, the degree of Irish superiority and the manner in which lineouts are used will be pivotal towards the outcome of this match.
The scrum is set to be the tighter contested of the set pieces and the early exchanges in this field may set the tone for the following match. The manner in which referee Wayne Barnes judges this competition will also prove vital. The Englishman was also in charge of the Ireland v France encounter and while he penalised the Irish forwards on occasion, it was a relatively even matchup. The Irish scrum should be full of confidence after the English game too. It was set to an area of dominance for England but the Irish scrum held firm for most of the match with Mike Ross especially impressive as he negated the anticipated challenge from former teammate Joe Marler. That same English scrum tormented Wales during the opening game of the tournament and Gethin Jenkins struggled against Dan Cole, though he had a more successful experience in Paris. His competition against Ross, and indeed Jack McGrath’s against the equally young Samson Lee should be keenly followed, as will Barne’s interpretation of the scrum. Rather than getting bogged down in a dogfight, Ireland should look to utilise Best’s clean hooking of the ball to secure quick ball and get the ball in Sexton’s hands faster.
One area that both teams will be looking to dominate is the breakdowm. Ireland again bullied this area against England and were shrewd in slowing English ball and throwing bodies in, to force mistakes. Wales meanwhile have an aggressive defensive line and will look to make chop tackles before the gain-line and allow Warburton to jump on isolated attackers to win ball back. This is set to be among the most highly contested facets of the match, especially with Ireland likely to keep the game tight. If Irish forwards begin rampaging as they have already this year, it will set the perfect platform for Ireland to take the match to Wales. Conversely the Welsh will hope their aggressive play can force penalties from Ireland, which if in kicking range ought to be dispatched by Halfpenny.
There will be many more individual matchups that will play a large role in determining which team will take the spoils. Both Kearney and Halfpenny are fullbacks of Lions standard and such is their prowess, the highest of standards are expected on a weekly basis. Wales will be hoping that their duo of Roberts and Davies will smash through the young Irish centre partnership of Henshaw and Payne. Roberts was especially impressive against the French and his ability to consistently break the gain-line was staggering. Payne and Henshaw may have yet to dazzle as a partnership going forward, but they are certainly growing in confidence. Payne managed to shut down the lively Joseph last week, as Henshaw had Fofana, but there were occasions when Luther Burrell got in behind them. If Wales can similarly exploit the Irish midfield, they will be able to secure faster ball for their dangerous wings and look to force Ireland play in areas they would wish not to.
Once again, the most important Irish player on the pitch will be Johnny Sexton. Despite missing the opening match of the campaign, he has been the stand-out player of the Six Nations this year. The manner with whhich he has managed games through his varied kicking game and marshalling of the backs has been highly impressive though it is his physicality that has surprised most. He met the challenge of Bastareaud head on and made a ferocious tackle on George Ford last week that resulted in a penalty. One need only witness his subsequent celebration and stare-down of his young pretender to gain an insight to the competition and hunger for success that drives him.
Worryingly for Ireland the periods he has been off the pitch have coincided with a decline in the quality of Irish play. This was evident throughout the Italy match and against France but was most notable when Madigan replaced him against England. Madigan is a better player than his cameo suggested but Ireland will be hoping for an injury free performance of Saturday. Without Sexton, it is doubtful the Irish would be entering the game as favourites.
His counterpart on Saturday is Dan Biggar who has arguably been the standout Welsh player in this campaign. He is confident in the kick-and-chase and has marshalled his backline well while building a good relationship with his half-back partner, Webb. They are not the same class as Murray and Sexton but heading in the right direction and a victory against Ireland would serve as a huge scalp for them.
By Saturday evening the outcome of this year’s Six Nations Championship will either be made clearer or jumbled heading into the final weekend. With all respects to Scotland, an Irish team with 11 consecutive wins will be expected to secure a Grand Slam in Edinburgh against a side that looks set to take the wooden spoon after their Calcutta Cup clash against England. Joe Schmidt will look to temper expectations as always but a win against Wales and then a Grand Slam would leave Ireland the pick of the European teams in 2015. Ordinarily this would be enough, but in a World Cup year there are bigger prizes at stake. The matter at hand however, is the not so insignificant match in Cardiff. It is set to be a close encounter but Ireland have the form, only two losses in Cardiff in the past fourteen games, and players to ensure the dream of a third Grand Slam lives on.