by Brent Pope
I have said since the start of the season that I think Ireland will win and I am not going to change that now.
There are a number of factors in their favour. First, they have a good record in Wales and in the Millennium Stadium. A number of players on this team have won Heineken Cups at this ground so even though they are away, the ground doesn’t hold any fears for them and they know what it is like to win there.
I also think that on paper I think Ireland have a better and more talented side in the crucial areas.
Looking at how the game will go, I think the selection of Tomás O’Leary tells us a bit about how Declan Kidney thinks the Welsh are going to play, and that he wants to make the game fairly tight at the start. Defensively, Tomás O’Leary is possibly a better option as a sweeper than Peter Stringer though I imagine Stringer will be sprung from the bench – a bit like he was against France.
It is a tight call and personally I would have elected for Stringer because I think he did enough last week. Also, given the way the Welsh defend – they come up hard and from the outside in to cut off the outside backs – I think he might just give Ronan O’Gara a crucial extra half second on the ball.
But it could loosen up in the second half, particularly if Wales feel they are in the running for the Championship and need to throw it around. Stringer could make an impact in that situation.
Tight game in the early stages
But I can’t see it being an open game early on and Ireland will try to win it similar to the way Munster have won their big games in Wales – absorb and then come good in the second half. They have to play for the win and what has kept them in the competition has been discipline and defence. To take a boxing analogy, Ireland have been able to sit back on the ropes and absorb it when they need to and then come good later in the game.
Is it 'boring rugby'? Obviously, Ireland have been ‘winning ugly’ in some games – but really, who cares? My only concern would be that they have started certain games slowly – they can’t afford to give Wales the same sort of start that they gave Scotland.
Looking at Wales, Warren Gatland is obviously a very successful coach and he knows what he is doing but I think he has made mistakes this year. Two selections stand out – Andy Powell at number eight and Gavin Henson in the centre.
Powell is a player that can be targeted, particularly during the aerial ping-pong. He is a strong carrier of the ball close to rucks but when he is out in the open field he crabs across the field and carries the ball in one hand. Wales use him as a sweeper to receive kicks and Ronan O’Gara can pick him out. Ireland, with a hard chase, can exploit his bad habits.
Henson and Powell - mistakes?
I am surprised that Gavin Henson is there as well. I accept he is being picked for his distribution and kicking but he is not a particularly good team man and I don’t have the same opinion of his ability that Gatland does.
The bench is another issue for them. I think last week’s match against Italy also showed that their depth is not as good as they thought and Wales only really have good cover at out-half and centre with James Hook and Jamie Roberts.
Looking at where Wales they will threaten, I think Ireland have a better and more dynamic back-row and they can shut the Wales backs down and make it a forward battle. Phillips breaking ability would be a concern but it has not been a factor since he came back from his knee injury.
He is a big physical player but he is playing as a distributor and, unfortunately, the scrum-half break has gone out of the game a bit. Stringer’s break from the back of a lineout against Scotland was the first really good one that we’ve seen. Generally speaking, there have not been really dynamic performances from scrum-half in this Championship.
Ireland can make it an arm-wrestle and win it that way.
Gatland - questionable codology
I don't think the 'mind games' will be a factor. The ‘war of words’ worked against England in the sense that Wales beat them after Gatland saying England had gone backwards under Martin Johnson but I don’t think it is a coach’s position to do that.
This week is more of the same. It’s a kind of codology that has crept into Gatland’s game in the last number of years. He had a few words to say about All Black rugby when New Zealand came over as well.
How does it help his team to say what he has said? How does it affect the Lions tour in the summer?
Declan Kidney is playing it completely right. There is no point in inflaming the opposition.
Over the 80 minutes, I think Ireland can expect a tough opening quarter with Wales being the home side and they will need to start well, then bully Wales up front and deny them the ball. They may be able to then get ahead and force Wales to play catch up rugby.
In the end, I think we could see Ireland will win by around 7 points.