No matter what Brian O’Driscoll or Warren Gatland says in public, the opening game of the weekend will be overshadowed by what happened in the third test of the Lions tour last summer. Rob Kearney has confirmed he expects this game to carry a certain amount of “spice”. Even without the off-field drama this is one of the most exciting match-ups of the tournament.
Wales have shown consistency which is something Ireland have lacked over the past few years and are deserved champions looking for their third Six Nations in a row. All the teams in the tournament are out to stop them and based on last years performance in this same fixture, Ireland are well able to halt the Welsh romping to victory. Under Joe Schmidt there are some smalls signs of light in terms of consistency, the second half of the Scottish game last week is a good example of this – Ireland simplified the basics of the game plan and ran out winners with a comfortable margin. This is something they may have struggled with in the past, but under Joe’s attentions each player looks comfortable with the system.
Wales looked a little haphazard in their opening game against Italy last week, but that is no telling of their form as they often start the Six Nations slowly. This week they’ll be looking to get out of first gear and having Ireland as their opponents is just the motivation they need.
Up front I believe the Irish front row edge the contest. Cian Healy has proved a tricky character for Adam Jones in the past, while Ross seems to be coming to terms with the new scrum laws. Hibbard and Best are on similarly good form, although Best is probably more effective than the welshman in the loose. He also has an easier time in the lineout as Devin Toner is essentially guaranteed ball.
The Irish back three should be looking to perform similarly to last week, although they are up against better opposition in Warburton, Lydiate and Faletau. This will be the key battle for the weekend and with the workhorses of the Welsh you’d imagine Peter O’Mahoney will struggle to get the same amount of turnovers as he did last week. Although he’ll still be looking to make his presence known. While effective last week I’d hope that Henry will move his game up a gear or two and really slow down Welsh ball.
Ireland have a clear advantage in the half backs with the Murray-Sexton axis. For Wales part, Philips is a very able scrumhalf beside Priestland who is a decent player but nothing near Sexton. Johnny will be looking to take this game by the scruff of the neck early on in this game and with the fast ball coming from the Munster nine, he’ll be well provided with the tools to do so.
The back three is where I think Ireland’s biggest disadvantage lies. Any team would suffer with the likes of Bowe, Fitz and Earls out injured. It’s up to Trimble and the junior Kearney to be front up against a Welsh back three which includes George North, any space given and he’ll just run over you. Trimble is generally a physical player and Kearney will have to be very solid for 80 mins on Saturday. Any loose kicks to the men in red will see Ireland punished.
On paper I think Ireland just about edge this Welsh team and if they can find the consistency I mentioned earlier I think the Irish will win this.
Predicted result: Ireland by 3.
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