Ireland’s Grand Slam hopefuls face their toughest test to date as Wales – a side that always sets itself up as one with something to prove – come to town.

Joe Schmidt’s men top the NatWest 6 Nations standings with two wins from two and while the table doesn’t lie, it tells something of a porky when the hapless Italy are one of the notches.

A yard or so from defeat against France, and the concession of three tries against the Azzurri, which left defence coach Andy Farrell "fuming", it’s safe to say that Ireland have not played near their best, or with anything like the same rhythm they managed to find in November wins over South Africa, Fiji and Argentina.

Wales, who Ireland have only beaten once in their last five meetings, will arrive in Dublin on the back of an impressive win over Scotland, a game that saw them overcome a lengthy injury list, and a one-score defeat away to back-to-back champions England.

Ireland are on a nine-game winning streak

The lack of a slight, perceived or real, around this fixture might tempt one into thinking that we’re all great pals again but Warren Gatland knows exactly how to prime his side for these games and whether that consists of highlighting the injured Sean O’Brien’s Lions comments or delving deeper into the past for an old ‘insult’, the Welsh will arrive at Lansdowne Road pumped up.

They also have the added incentive of knowing any realistic championship ambitions they have would go up in smoke should they fall to a second defeat.

Ireland’s 56-19 win over Conor O’Shea’s Italy came at quite a cost and they lose 93 Test caps worth of experience by the absence of Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw.

That’s a lot of power to lose out in the forwards and incoming tighthead Andrew Porter, winning just his fifth cap, will find out very quickly that Wales are not Italy, against whom he excelled. Expect the 22-year-old Leinster man to be targeted.

Captain Rory Best

Captain Rory Best has already got one warning shot off in advance, a dog whistle to referee Glen Jackson.

"We scrum legally," said the hooker, who will become Ireland’s most capped forward (109) when the game kicks off at 2.15pm. "And all we ask is for that to be respected, and, I suppose, protected."

Henshaw’s place goes to Chris Farrell, while Devin Toner comes in for the Ulster lock.

There are also two tactical switches with Cian Healy back in ahead of Jack McGrath on the other side of the front row, and CJ Stander getting his number 8 shirt back from Jack Conan.

"It is not ideal and you do not suddenly replace three world-class players but we focus on what we have, exciting young players like the three who have come in," said Schmidt.

The loss through injury of three Lions for Ireland is underlined by three Lions coming back for Wales as Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny all return from injury.

Johnny Be Good

Johnny Sexton during Friday's practice

You just have to look back to the France game to see Johnny Sexton’s importance to the side.

The Leinster player’s presence on the pitch is vital for Ireland’s chances. The team don’t have another man capable of doing what he did in the final passage of play in Paris.

Never mind the dropgoal, throughout the 41 phases he mixed vision with supreme cool to put Ireland in with a shout.

And for a reminder of what happens when the playmaker is not around one just has to recall last year’s game.

Notwithstanding that he was charged down for the last try in Wales’s 22-9 win in Cardiff, the real damage was done when the out-half was off the pitch.

Coming up to the halfway mark of the first half, Sexton went off for a Head Injury Assessment and George North scored off the next play, 5-3 Wales.

Two minutes before the break Sexton went to the sin-bin and during that time North scored his second, 15-6, and the gap proved too big to close.

Sexton is yellow-carded by referee Wayne Barnes

The year previous the ex-Racing 92 man was on hand to kick the late equalising penalty in a 16-16 draw.

France weren’t able to get their mitts on the playmaker but you can be sure that Gatland, taking charge of Wales for the 100th time, won’t give him the same freedom and has said as much.

"We have had some pretty good success not allowing Johnny too much time and space on the ball. Our line-speed defensively has got to be good," the former Connacht and Ireland coach said.

"We have got to put Conor [Murray] and his kicking game under pressure. We have to be prepared to be pretty physical against them."

There’s a good chance that the winner of this game will have won the aerial battle so protecting the number 10 must be priority number one for the hosts. 

Trying times

Ireland's Chris Farrell in action against Argentina

Gatland would have been encouraged by how France handled Ireland, who, even with conditions taken into account, never looked like scoring a try in Paris.

Add to that the fact that Ireland’s last three Six Nations games against the Welsh have yielded a paltry two tries, Conor Murray’s effort in 2016 and a penalty try the year before.  

It’s wishful to think that a handful of penalty kicks and a dropgoal will get Ireland over the line on what is forecast to be a cold but dry day in Dublin 4. 

However, Farrell’s inclusion might just provide some ammo for the wingers.

His passing, subtle and crisp, as witnessed against Argentina, could be just the thing to buy Keith Earls or Jacob Stockdale that extra yard of space to get behind the Wales defence.

Close encounter

Ireland’s ability to deal with the favourites tag has been a notable weakness over the years. Simply put they’re better underdogs.

But any sense that Schmidt's charges would coast into this game under the impression that the 11-point favourites tag offered by some bookmakers early in the week was anyway accurate would have been dispelled by the loss of those key men.

And now ex-players and coaches are lining up to say that anything less than a perfect performance will result in a Welsh win, some going so far as to say that this game will see Schmidt's first home Six Nations loss. 

Ireland are still seven-point favourites but few can see past a margin bigger than a single kick, it looks that close. 

It could be another draw. 

Follow Ireland v Wales on Saturday (KO 2.15pm) via the live blog on RTÉ.ie/Sport and the News Now App, or listen live on RTÉ Radio 1, with commentary from Michael Corcoran and Donal Lenihan.