Six Nations preview: Wales v Ireland
by Brendan Cole
The focus on the head coach is unfortunate, but it is impossible to view this match as anything other than D-Day for Declan Kidney.
Given the importance of the coaching ticket to the fortunes of every rugby nation, that makes it a huge day for Irish rugby as well even beyond the normal importance of an Ireland v Wales match.
This is also a crucial match for a generation of Irish players inside and outside the squad.
Compared to last year, Kidney has a strong hand even though in form terms, much of the rosy glow comes from a win over a hollowed-out Argentina at the tail end of their November tour. In fairness, it should not be forgotten that Ireland came close to beating a Springbok team full of class players and basically let the match slip away after doing enough to win.
Ireland have had reasonable luck with injuries, in the sense that there is good back-up available for Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell and Tommy Bowe. Compared to the list of absentees last year, the squad comes into the match in relatively good health. That is probably the biggest advantage over this Welsh side.
Wales will be in front of their home crowd and need to end a seven-Test losing sequence. Even without Warren Gatland stoking things up in the dressing room, they will be fired up.
But the ingredients of a winning gameplan do appear to be in place for Ireland.
Similar dynamics to the Rugby World Cup clash
In a sense, this is a re-run of the 2011 Rugby World Cup clash in which Ireland will have the chance to do the right thing. In that clash, a pack intent on carrying the ball conservatively and half-backs instructed to kick it allowed Wales relatively conservative approach to succeed.
How might that match have turned out if Kidney had put his faith in Jonny Sexton at out-half and a more adventurous plan? This clash will provide some insight.
Both teams have, of course, evolved since then.
For Ireland's part, November saw the best evidence yet of a smarter, more ‘heads up’ approach to the attack and improved form from Conor Murray, who has been a surprise beneficiary of the IRFU’s diktat to speed up play from the base of the rucks.
Aside from playing faster, the accuracy of Murray’s play has also stepped up and should it continue, the improvement of his play in tandem with Sexton will be a boon for Ireland.
Having Sexton in the starting lineup will also give Ireland a much more potent threat with ball in hand. Brian O’Driscoll, who missed this clash last year, is also back in harness.
There are doubts about his form and fitness but it would be a surprise to see him perform at anything below his best in this Championship. The Clontarf man has always been at his best when he has something to prove. Never more so than now.
Elsewhere in the backline, Gordon D’Arcy’s form and improved passing range, and the excellence of Rob Kearney in every aspect of the game bar the spontaneous offload, should give Wales plenty to worry about.
Ireland should also benefit from picking a pair of young wingers in Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy who have that intangible capacity to create something from the glimmer of a chance. Gilroy in particular is showing signs that he could yet have an exceptional career for Ireland. He is still only 21.
Ireland also have a sturdy and complimentary pair of second rows, and quality operators at hooker and loosehead in Rory Best and Cian Healy.
In terms of weak points, the main causes for concern are tighthead and the back rows. At tighthead, Ireland are wholly reliant on Mike Ross remaining fit for most of the match.
The back-row selection is Kidney’s biggest call and could prove Ireland's Achilles heel. Chris Henry has been left out of the team despite showing excellence as both a nuisance and a turnover threat this season.
Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are all fine players and as individuals they may well offer more than Henry, but none have the Ulster openside’s match sense, developed under Mark Anscombe, for legally slowing up the right ball at the right time.
The selection of O’Mahony to bolster the already impressive list of carriers hints that Ireland will, just as they did in 2011, attempt to beat up the Welsh pack. It may be possible to do so with, for example, Samoa showing that hyper-aggressive carrying can be very effective against the Welsh.
But Ireland cannot afford to get into a ‘go through the phases’ mindset. They must carry with intent, embrace the offload and generate fluency between scrum-half and carriers. Lack of urgency will mean trouble.
If Ireland can create momentum inside, the improved backline attack will come into it with Sexton currently peerless in Europe in his ability to turn promising situations into tries.
This is the best backline Ireland have fielded in this Championship for some time and that could yet prove decisive.
Wales have questions to answer of their own.
Much of the focus has been on the second-row crisis, but the loss of Rhys Priestland at out-half and a confused coaching situation may yet prove the most difficult issues to manage.
The Welsh attack has depended on Priestland’s excellent passing range and timing for a couple of years, with opposition teams unable to spot which behemoth back would be launched with intent into apparently well set defences.
Replacement Dan Biggar’s style is much more functional. If Ireland offer up obvious mismatches or gaps, the Osprey is well capable of taking advantage. But Ireland should find the Welsh attack easier to read and manage.
The coaching situation could also be to Ireland’s benefit. Wales depend heavily on confidence and motivation. Interim head coach Rob Howley in charge and he has yet to shake the suspicion that he is a natural number two.
And that second row crisis is also a concern. Ian Evans starts despite a lack of match fitness with sixth choice Andrew Coombs alongside. Wales’ big ball-carrying locks – the likes of Bradley Davies - have been a problem for Ireland in recent years and their absence should also make the defensive job that bit easier.
Video: Brent Pope on the Ireland captaincy
Wales do have plenty of weapons from the rock solid Adam Jones at tighthead, to the disruptive capabilities of Sam Warburton, the huge size across the backline and the individual brilliance of the likes of Mike Phillips and George North.
Beating them at home is a difficult ask and the Henry decision could yet come back to bite Ireland. Can Kidney's men show the intent and exuberance of November, surely the point of making Heaslip captain?
If they do, they may just have enough to kickstart this campaign.
Match Prediction: Wales 13-18 Ireland