PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy previews Ireland’s early Saturday kick off at home to Wales in the third round of the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations. Joe Schmidt has had his hand forced to go for youth but does this play into the trap of wily old Warren Gatland and his returning Lions?
So, after the inconclusive cakewalk that was Italy at home last time, we’re into the real championship meat and drink for Joe Schmidt’s Irish squad.
And the last person you want knocking on the door now is cuddly old uncle Warren Gatland and his band of snarling Welsh Dragons, smarting from an arguably unlucky defeat in Twickenham. There is zero doubt that this presents the toughest test for this Irish team so far, with the added and hugely significant blow of losing three key Irish Lions in Furlong, Henshaw & Henderson.
The two injured forwards are real lynchpins, big ball carriers, often from the first receiver position. They are also very influential at set piece, both lineout and scrum, but arguably their biggest lost to Ireland will be in oiling the multi phase attack. Furlong is simply world class but in the overall context, its hard not to feel Henderson’s loss is more crucial and just gives us a bit less dynamism off the bench. Replacement tighthead Porter has buckets of potential, providing pace, power and dynamism, but he only has a handful of senior appearances in the position and it will be simply one of the great propping performances if he comes out on top of his duel against Rob Evans this time.
Having said that and no one wants to admit it even enters the thinking, in terms of scenario planning for the knockout stages of World Cup 2019, this could be a phenomenal step forward for the group if Andrew Porter and Chris Farrell can actually deliver when it matters most at the very highest pressure setting of a crunch 6 Nations match.
In terms of Chris Farrell, my old team mates in Munster rave about his ability, attitude and aptitude since joining the province this season. He did really well in November and actually may just provide a little more balance to the backline going forward, being a more natural 13 to Aki’s 12. Having said that, the real test he faces is in setting the line speed and drift for the Irish defence against a Scarlets’ inspired backline that destroyed Scotland. There’s been a lot of chat since the Italy game of how Ireland remain defensively vulnerable out wide in certain scenarios and if Farrell can shore that up, he’ll give Ireland a great chance of winning plus Joe a real headache for the visit of Scotland when Ringrose will likely be match fit. Fortune sometimes favours the fortunate and Chris Farrell has the chance and the ability to seize a fantastic chance here.
In terms of the Welsh, they’ll be really stinging from their loss at Twickenham and as if Gatland needs anymore motivation after the Sean O’Brien Lions smackdown, they always raise their game for Dublin. The Welsh welcome back three key Lions in Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny, and they hold the key to delivering the gameplan that the Welsh coaching ticket will feel can unlock the Irish defence.
Liam Williams, who was a revelation in New Zealand with the Lions and fits right into the Scarlets gameplan despite moving to Saracens this season, provides the skinny strength and physical edge that they lacked a small bit out wide against England. Dan Biggar’s return is huge to the overall confidence of the Welsh side. He is a big game player, he is a fantastic footballer (especially in the air where he has negated Rob Kearney’s dominance before) and he has the invaluable experience of having won in Dublin. With Leigh Halfpenny’s return bringing backfield security and a 90%+ kicking conversion rate, these combined factors could well be enough to get Wales over the line.
Looking at the game as a whole, we can expect Ireland to rely on the Murray-Sexton axis to deliver a kicking based gameplan that can turn the Welsh counter attack strength into a weakness. Ireland will be looking to force errors and create contestable rucks in the Welsh half that can either lead to turnovers or kickable penalties. There’s no escaping the need for Ireland to gain close to parity at the set pieces in order to keep enough defensive stucture to suffocate the Welsh attacking game. For Wales’ part, they’ll know they’ll need to win in the trenches if they want to unlock the phases that can decimate Joe Schmidt’s 1-80 minute blueprint for victory. Accuracy, aggression and daring are the elements that can steal Wales victory.
It’s a very tight one to call, one my heart and head disagree on but I’m going to go Ireland by 3, with Sexton playing the role that Brian O’Driscoll played in 2009 by literally kicking us over the line at the end.
See all the picks for the PSA Academies 2018 NatWest 6 Nations Predictions Challenge here