This week has felt like a month in anticipation for this test match. Wales are on the cusp of securing a farewell Guinness Six Nations championship, grand slam, and triple crown on Saturday but they face an Ireland side whose performance last weekend indicates that the side are a live threat for Welsh hopes. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the key match ups. D
Will the roof be opened or closed?
A war of words has ensued on whether the Principality Stadium’s roof will be opened or closed. Given the inclement weather forecast, it makes sense for the roof to be closed. The atmosphere in the stadium raises up a few notches when the roof is closed, the humidity in the air increases. Joe Schmidt is fully aware that the home crowd in attendance could play a massive role in this contest, the noise generated could impact set piece calls, communication with or without the ball as well as the support base rallying the Welsh team at times when they will be forced to defend their line. An interesting subplot ahead of this test match.
Beirne Baby Beirne
The introduction of Tadhg Beirne in the Ireland second row is a fascinating pregame note for this test match. Beirne’s stint with the Scarlets was standout and the Welsh rugby public will be all too aware of the skill set that Beirne could potentially bring to the contest. Solid line out operator, mobility and work rate around the fringes and then you throw in his ability at the breakdown and winning turnover ball. The Welsh back row unit is superb but the presence of Beirne adds an additional threat to nullify along with O’Mahony, Ryan, O’Brien and Stander. The breakdown with the likes of Josh Navidi present will be prime-time viewing.
Front Five Battle
This is a test match fixture where early platform from either front five could be potentially game defining. The Welsh front five has impressed throughout this campaign, particularly impressed with Adam Beard’s progression this season. The young, skillful second row has provided quality cameos to complement the assured workmanlike performance of the legend Alun Wyn Jones. The performance against England was immense particularly in the second half where the Welsh front five to a man took the mantle of responsibility. Endless ball carries, endless tackle count, endless work rate which forced England backwards.
Ireland’s front five unit looks potent as well. James Ryan has further enhanced his glowing reputation with assured performances. His maul management is elite at present; his work rate sets the tone for others to follow. It will be interesting to see whether there are any cohesion issues with Beirne early in this test match. Iain Henderson was supreme last weekend and both players gelled extremely well in set piece and all round play.
The scrummaging battle will be interesting given the test match experience in both units. Healy, Best and Furlong facing up against Evans, Owens and Francis. The Exeter Chiefs prop has impressed this season; his set piece execution has been to the fore. All hinges on the officiating of Angus Gardner who is prone not to dwell too much on the scrum resets.
The Ireland back three is buoyed by the return of full back Rob Kearney but questions have been raised of Ireland in the back three unit in recent test matches; some unconvincing aerial defensive work last week will be the cue for Wales to execute the aerial bomb onslaught from minute one. Ireland will look to pick their kicking aerial game at opportune times; the mode has been to keep ball in hand but the French test match saw Ireland execute more aerial kicks which exposed Ramos in the full back berth. I am not sure that Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams are that vulnerable in the aerial kick game so the pressure is on the Ireland back three to get their aerial defensive work right from minute one; otherwise it could be an arduous day for Ireland.
Can Ireland put pressure on Gareth Anscombe?
It is a key question to raise ahead of this test match. Anscombe has progressed nicely in this campaign and has provided Wales with a welcome selection poser at ten. Dan Biggar is a world class performer to close out this contest or rescue the test match for Wales if required on Saturday. Can Ireland’s back row unit create sufficient pressure to create unforced errors from the half back thus disrupting Wales attacking platform. Anscombe has shown resiliency aplenty in this campaign and this weekend will be another acid test of his international test match credentials.
Ireland attacking game variation
Wales will chop tackle Ireland at source so the key question is how Ireland vary their attacking play for this test match? Sean O’Brien inclusion adds abrasive ball carrying but it will require a bit more finesse from Ireland to unlock a resolute Welsh defensive line. Ireland will need to attack the inside channels with pace throughout; look to probe around the ruck area for decisive gain line breaks. Offloading game will also need to be adopted by Ireland at times to unsettle this Welsh side but Ireland’s offload play has been inconsistent at best during this season’s campaign. The drive it up approach simply will not work this weekend from Ireland so invention and creativity will be required from Murray, Sexton, Stockdale and Ringrose to win this test match for Ireland.
Wales were my tip for this championship at the start of the tournament. The schedule setup perfectly and once they negotiated the Parisian trip in round one, they have not looked back. Their awesome performance against England in round three was immense and they safely negotiated the banana skin of Murrayfield in round four. This round is about keeping composure and staying patient. Wales are a side which will be asked serious questions by Ireland at various stages but Ireland’s attacking play for me may not be good enough to breakdown this side. Wales will execute and come away with the victory in the final quarter. An incredible test match beckons!