Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 2.30pm
By Brendan Cole
Both of these teams have a lot of chips on the table in a contest that has all the ingredients needed to make it one of the most compelling we will see in any sporting arena this year.
Wales have been top dogs in the Six Nations for the last two seasons and go in knowing that with France and England weak, a victory in Dublin would put them very close to an historic third championship in three years.
Defeat, on the other hand, would be a significant set-back for a side that still has designs on becoming a major world power.
For Ireland, the appointment of Joe Schmidt has caused an outbreak an optimism of a type familiar to sports fans everywhere. The positive feeling is everywhere and, for now at least, Irish rugby is united behind the new head coach.
A victory here would continue that narrative, releasing the pressure and giving space for growth over the next three matches.
But as even the most casual Ireland supporters know, that sense of togetherness can evaporate very quickly in Irish rugby, particularly when one province is minimally represented in the national side.
‘Attention to detail’ has been a key theme for analysts in the early days of Schmidt’s tenure.
If Ireland fail in this clash, the talk will soon turn to ‘inattention to Munster’, arguably the strongest province in the country but with only four representatives in the squad.
The stakes are high, but it is the tetchy relationship between these two squads that will bring the additional spice. Both of these teams envy an element of what the other has achieved, with Wales’ multiple successes in the Six Nations contrasting with what the Irish provinces have done at European Cup level.
And no matter what anyone says, Brian O’Driscoll, Warren Gatland and the Lions is a factor too. Both have points to prove.
On the field, Gatland is too good a coach not to have noticed that O’Driscoll faltered in attack on a couple of occasions last week and may sense an opportunity to get in the face of Ireland’s greatest ever attacking player.
In Scott Williams, quicker and more nimble than Jonathan Davies, they have a player capable of leading the execution of such a strategy.
It would be a high-risk move with as one of O’Driscoll’s greatest skills remains his ability to draw defenders to him before timing a pass to a team-mate in space. Wales need only watch the tape of last year’s first-half attacking masterclass to remind themselves of that.
And while Ireland’s wide attack was unproductive for most of last week, Gordon D’Arcy’s return should improve the cohesion. The trademark set plays, kept under wraps against the Scots, will also be back with Jonathan Sexton’s speed and ability to get outside the centres much more prominent.
That could give Ireland a vital edge in the line-bust stakes and a resultant supply of quick ball. That said, even if they do break the line, Ireland cannot expect it to be easy at the ruck.
One factor that has been ignored from November was the difficulty the All Blacks had slowing Ireland down in the first half. Ireland were rightly credited with being aggressive in contact, but blindside Stephen Luatua was particularly ineffective at a several key rucks.
Ireland can’t expect to have that luxury in this clash, as Wales have a trio of top class defensive operators in Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate.
Wales’ own attack is also a major concern. Scotland were able to march Ireland back and create some dangerous situations despite fielding a pedestrian backline. Wales, as they showed in snatches, are much more powerful and dynamic.
Ireland will hope that aggressive linespeed, low tackling will get the job done but the likes of George North and Jamie Roberts bring timing and good footwork to the party as well as sheer power. Rhys Priestland may not have shone in every aspect against Italy, but on his day he times the release of the big men very well.
If, as may well happen, both sides do find themselves slowed at the ruck, reduced in effectiveness out wide and at stalemate in the scrum, the trump card could be Ireland captain Paul O’Connell.
There may be a question of just how fit he is after missing a certain period of preparation.
But if the body is willing, the captaincy and Schmidt’s fresh ideas look perfectly timed and he may just prove capable of driving Ireland to victory from the heart of the pack.
Cian Healy could also prove to be the difference. On the Welsh side, they will look to the likes of Richard Hibbard and Alun-Wyn Jones to put them on top in the arm-wrestle.
The Irish bench, which includes the in-form Isaac Boss and a trio of powerful front-rowers in Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Martin Moore, could also give Ireland a key boost on the hour mark.
A few small edges, and possibly another moment of magic in this fixture from O’Driscoll, may just prove enough to get it done.
Six Nations prediction: Ireland 19-13 Wales
Ireland: 15 R Kearney 14 Trimble 13 O'Driscoll 12 D'Arcy 11 D Kearney 10 Sexton 9 Murray; 1 Healy 2 Best 3 Ross 4 Toner 5 O'Connell (capt) 6 O'Mahony 7 Henry 8 Heaslip
Replacements: 16 Cronin 17 McGrath 18 Moore 19 Tuohy 20 O'Donnell 21 Boss 22 Jackson 23 McFadden
Wales: 15 Halfpenny 14 Cuthbert 13 S Williams 12 Roberts 11 North 10 Priestland 9 Phillips; 1 Jenkins 2 Hibbard 3 A Jones 4 Coombs 5 AW Jones 6 Lydiate 7 Warburton (capt) 8 Faletau
Replacements: 16 Owens 17 James 18 R Jones 19 Ball 20 Tipuric 21 Webb 22 Hook 23 L Williams
Referee: Wayne Barnes
LIVE: RBS SIX NATIONS
Live television coverage of Ireland v Wales and Scotland v England from 13:30 on Saturday 8 February, and France v Italy from 14:30 on Sunday 9 February on RTÉ Two and RTE.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage on Saturday Sport (14:00) and Sunday Sport (14:00) on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).