Date: 12th March 2011
Kick-off: 17:00 (GMT)
Venue: Millennium Stadium
Ireland’s visits to Cardiff have of late been some of the most memorable in recent Championship with both countries ending long grand slam droughts at the Millennium Stadium. The Gatland factor also lingers large in the rivalry between the two sides with the Wales coach not short of a word or two when it comes to the team he used to be in charge of.
To say that Wales had turned the corner following back to back to wins over Scotland and Italy would be a mistake. While they may have been significant results for a team trying to claw itself out of a dire patch of form, the actual performances were far from acceptable in terms of the standards set during the early days of the Gatland era. Although the men in red produced two excellent Shaun Edwards inspired defensive performances, the reality is that they were only necessitated in failings across the park. Good early starts have not been converted into convincing eighty-minute showings, against arguably the two weakest sides in the Championship.
In a fairly similar way to Wales, Ireland have struggled to cope with the grand slam success achieved during the early days of their current coaching setup, with the heady heights of 2009 rarely having been matched since. Scraping wins over Italy and Scotland would have done very little for the confidence, let alone the blood pressure of Irish supporters. On the other hand though, they could, and really should have beaten France at the newly-renovated Lansdowne Road. Current form aside, Cardiff has become more than a home from home for the Irish, losing only once in twenty-six years.
What to expect:
There is no love lost between these particular set of players. While the 2009 Lions tour may have healed some wounds, we can expect to see a very physical encounter, with no quarter asked or given. Gatland, never one to miss an opportunity to deflect some of the pressure away from his players, has publicly announced his intentions to highlight what he believes to Ireland’s serial offending at the breakdown, to referee Jonathan Kaplan. Whether this has any bearing on the pace of the ball either side are able to recycle, remains to be seen; if anything it is only likely to motivate the visitors even more. Both sides employ a kicking game, so accuracy with the boot will be absolutely crucial for the outcome of Saturday’s game.
All eyes on:
For Wales, Mike Phillips brings up a half century of appearances, but none are likely to have been made with so much doubt hanging over his selection. The scrumhalf has been a pale shadow of his former self, struggling to impose himself to the same effect as in recent seasons, where he has been a key cog in the Welsh machinery. In that sense though it would be fair to say that if the Ospreys player can shake off his poor form then Wales are likely to as well.
Sean O’ Brien has been in electrifying form for both province and country. The 24-year-old’s dynamism has pushed him to the front of an Irish back row in a formidably competitive area of selection. With the Welsh back-row having impressed so much in defence, if the Leinster flanker can get on top, then the home side could be in for a torrid time.
Head to Head: Alun Wyn Jones v Paul O’Connell
The Welsh lineout was taken to the cleaners’ at Croke Park last year. Even if it may have improved somewhat this year, Wyn Jones as the target man for Wales faces a stiff challenge against one of the best lineout forwards in the business in Munster man O’Connell.
Last year’s result: Ireland 27 Wales 12
The inconsistency of either side in this year’s championship and last autumn makes Saturday evenings game a tough one to call. Wales have a big performance in them, but Ireland’s greater experience and physical edge will just see them home in a narrow game. Ireland by 3