RBS 6 Nations: Wales vs. Ireland Preview

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Friday Night Lights at the Principality Stadium

The only Friday night fixture of this year’s RBS 6 Nations takes place this week with Wales and Ireland renewing acquaintances at the Principality Stadium. The Friday night kickoff time will make it a superb atmosphere for both fans and players alike. Hawkeye Sidekick looks ahead to the fixture.

Wounded Wales ready to make a statement

Are Wales seriously that far off the pace? This season to date has seen Wales enjoy good periods of dominance but the key issue has being putting points on the board. The Italian fixture on another day could have seen Wales win by forty points. They were dominant in all facets of play and only last ditch tackling prevented them from securing the bonus point.

The England game was one that got away from Wales. Leading deep into a terrific test match, Wales game management deserted them when they needed it the most. An errand kick downfield from Davies gave England the platform to attack. The finish from Daly was sublime; his pace scorched Cuthbert out wide and the game was lost.

The Murrayfield test match as Ireland found out was a difficult assignment for the Welsh. Wales in the opening period should have put more points on the board. Several chances were spurned and Scotland took full advantage with an excellent second half display where Hogg and Russell were to the fore with good attacking lines and game management. Opportunity lost has being the theme for Wales this season and it could be against Ireland where everything clicks with a complete performance.

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Warburton key to breakdown battle

The Welsh back row are going to have a massive say on the upcoming fixture with Ireland. The back row options are endless for Wales with the likes of Warburton, Tipuric, Moriarty, Faletau to chose from. The fact that Ireland will probably name O’Brien, Stander and Heaslip means that there will be no specialist seven for Ireland to compete in the breakdown. France exposed this area in Dublin and I would expect Wales to target this area as well; slowing down ball and pouncing when ball carriers leave themselves isolated.

The second row options are as good as anything in this tournament. Huge respect for Alun Wyn Jones as a player and leader. I cannot believe some people were questioning the guy after the Scotland loss. Jones is a natural leader; he has captained the Lions. His partnership with the abrasive Jake Ball is physically imposing. Jones defense against Scotland was superb; eleven tackles made, one missed tackle and one turnover won. The set piece has being solid so Ireland will have their work cut out to create a platform.

Wales half-back options have being on point. Webb and Biggar have formed a reliable and effective partnership. There has being comments specifically around their inability to launch an implosive back line but there were line breaks for Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies against Scotland. The three quarters has a nice balance to it. Davies is a superb player, has everything in the locker; physically imposing, great ball carrier and tackler with pace and passing ability to boot. Scott Williams is explosive with ball in hand, great game awareness, looking for the line break.

The wings speak for themselves. Liam Williams has being the standout back and player for Wales in this tournament (potential player of the tournament candidate). His tries in the tournament and ability to make game line yards with his stealth pace and movement has being a joy to watch at times. Aerially very strong and Saracens have signed a superb acquisition next season. George North, incredible talent and winger. He has being unlucky in this tournament; should have a couple of more tries to his name. His ball carrying has being on point.

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Leigh Halfpenny

Leigh Halfpenny at full back? Reliable as ever in all facets of play. His long range goal kicking is a real asset particularly for a closely fought fixture like Friday night will potentially be. Unless I am missing something, this is a formidable Wales team and will take a near on a perfect Ireland performance to get over the line.

Ireland’s steady progress

As Ronan O’Gara pointed out immediately after the France win, this fixture like Scotland is a banana skin for Ireland. Wales with two losses in the tournament are out of the championship running (realistically) and can play without excessive tournament pressure which could prompt the team to produce their best performance of this tournament. Ireland have made steady progress since their opening day loss to Scotland.

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Ireland line-out to be tested

What has worked for Ireland? The pack has being steady. The set piece has being solid if not spectacular. The scrum at times has worked well evident in the Italy and France tests but the line out options are a concern. Toner is the go to in the line out with Donnacha Ryan providing another reliable option. However, the third option is a concern. Peter O’Mahoney will probably start from off the bench and his prowess in the line-out is vastly understated. O’Mahoney is ultra reliable in this set piece area for both province and national team. Wales will look to compete and try to disrupt Ireland to the extent that the visitors will be forced to launch attacks from front of the line-out. Intriguing area beckons. Will Ireland eyeball Wales and throw to the back of the line-out given this scenario? It is perfectly setup.

The Ireland back row options have immense ball carrying ability but will it succeed against  the Wales back row who have in the past successfully negated this threat with early first time tackling and excellent breakdown work. Stander and Heaslip have being the models of consistency in their work rate and ball carrying. O’Brien at seven has had issues in the breakdown area but the Carlow native is improving with more game minutes on the pitch. I do not expect Joe Schmidt to change things for this test match so the breakdown area and taking care of the ball will be a constant strain for Ireland. The balance of the back row is a concern personally; no specialist seven like van Der Flier or O’Donnell in the ranks.

Ireland half-back options are standout performers. Murray has had an incredible season to date. The Munster scrum-half’s box kicks if accurate will provide Ireland with good territorial gains. His ability to identify gaps defensively from close range is another string to his bow this season. His speed of pass in rucks has increased and helped Sexton last time out with an assured performance.

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Sexton looking to repeat French performance

Sexton’s performance against France was nothing short of sensational. Given the lack of game minutes, Sexton was seamless in execution and game management. His drop goal in the second half in difficult conditions spoke volumes. Sexton if provided with quick ball can launch his back line but the question is whether Ireland can nullify the expected Welsh back row breakdown work is another thing entirely?

The Ireland back line have had their moments. The Scotland defeat saw some nice phases of attacking play which continued with the demolition of Italy. The France game was more an arm wrestle and back line action was limited. The three quarters of Ringrose and Henshaw will be pivotal for Ireland on Friday night. Henshaw is a superb footballer but has not had many line breaks in this tournament given that he has being first receiver from the half-backs primarily.

Ringrose has had the opportunity to create line breaks as a result; his deft turn of foot to the fore in recent test matches. His defensive work is a work in progress; a shaky Scotland performance defensively but the Leinster man has improved immeasurably in the assignments to Italy and France but given Wales’ three quarter and back line, this represents a serious test for the youngster.

The full back berth is potentially up for grabs. If Rob Kearney is not ready to go, Zebo presumably will slot into the position. Zebo reads the game extremely well, ability to make game line breaks from identifying mismatches is to the fore. Keith Earls has performed admirably in this campaign; solid performer and has scored a couple of tries to boot.

Verdict:

Two evenly matched sides on show this Friday evening. I have a feeling that this Welsh side are ready to produce a performance to silence the doubters. The back row battle and in particular the breakdown battle is a close call but goes to Wales, a lack of seven in the Ireland ranks may be exposed. If this plays out, Ireland will struggle to generate quick ruck ball against a Welsh side who pride themselves on their defensive structures. Ireland to win will need to dominate the scrum and line out. The scrum is a potential area for Ireland to make gains but Wales will equally target the line out particularly options other than Toner.

The fervent home support, Friday night lights effect will lift Wales to the extent that they will win the contest in a tight affair. Beware of the wounded animal and Wales are exactly that. Ireland and Wales have both lost to Scotland. Both sides in my eyes are very evenly matched. It is a toss-up but I think Wales hold the cards in terms of the breakdown area which will be the decisive area of play. Roll on Friday!

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