Date: Sunday 5th February
Venue: Aviva Stadium
Ireland’s recent form has been patchy at best. Four World Cup warm-up defeats were followed by a stunning win against Australia in a near perfect Group Stage in New Zealand, before their come-uppance against Wales. Their squad’s club form is comfortably better than their Welsh counterparts, if that counts for anything at all.
The opportunity to build on their strong World Cup showing has been hampered by a plague of injuries with captain Sam Warburton admitting that preparations have been far from ideal. Dan Lydiate, Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones are all ruled out of the encounter and played key roles when Wales triumphed over Ireland in the World Cup. But Warren Gatland’s men received a boost when Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland were declared fit to start in a backline full of depth. 21-year-old Alex Cuthbert is set to make his debut against Ireland and forms a fearsome wing pairing with George North.
All Eyes On: Jonny Sexton & Mike Phillips
As good as Sexton has been in the blue of Leinster, he has never really turned it on in green with any sort of consistency. His performance in last year’s Heineken Cup Final, including a half-time berating of his team-mates, shows he has the ability to shine at the highest level, and outside a more confident Conor Murray than we saw at the World Cup, maybe this year’s tournament will finally see Declan Kidney have to install him as Ireland’s first choice 10.
The best way for Ireland to stop the dangerous Welsh attack is at the source, beginning with Phillips. The Bayonne scrum-half played a crucial part in Wales’ World Cup victory over Ireland and will look to play a similar role here. Ireland have a particularly effective breakdown technique but with the 6’3’’ Phillips adding extra bulk around the base he could prove to be particularly important.
Head to Head: Sean O’Brien v Sam Warburton
This game will be all about the breakdown – when Ireland have been at their very best they have thwarted the opposition at the tackle area. Warburton will not just be key for disrupting opposition ball but also maintaining possession. Away from the breakdown, O’Brien is obviously a barrelling runner who needs to be stopped. If Warburton gets the upper hand, then he will bring turnover ball to Wales, who have the power and pace in the backs to really make it pay. If O’Brien can stifle Warburton and turn ball over himself, the same applies in reverse. If Warburton rules the roost, Wales can win, but if he doesn’t and O’Brien comes to the fore, it’s Ireland’s game.
What to Expect:
Ireland will believe they have the beating of Wales up front. The tight 5 looks much stronger than the decimated Welsh offering, and I expect the set-pieces to be used as a platform early on. They will look to Sexton to convert chances with the boot to give them the leeway to use the finishing ability of Trimble, Bowe and a rejuvenated Kearney. The early shows of over-confidence of Wellington, where touch kicks for line outs in the corner were preferred to shots at goal, will be far from evident as realism will kick in for a Tournament the Irish believe they can win.
Wales meanwhile will stick to their primary strength of getting their big ball carriers across the gain line. If the likes of Roberts, North and Toby Faletau can make sufficient inroads this will open up the game for some width to potentially cause damage. Priestland is adept at playing the percentages, but will keep the ball in hand if the big runners begin to take control.
Ireland will ease their way in front, before opening up in the second half. Wales may chip away, it I see an Ireland victory by 9 points, somewhere in the region of 21-12. MB
Any psychological edge the Welsh had over Ireland was lost amid a spate of injuries, and while I expect Wales to remain close Ireland should win by 6 points. TJ
By Tom James and Mark Bonsall