By Phil Rice
There has been much criticism of Ireland’s Six Nations form this year, but they have still won three out of four matches and have an outside chance of winning the tournament this Saturday.
Last weekend they put in a much-improved performance against France in Dublin and approach this week’s game in Cardiff with renewed confidence.
Their recent record in the Welsh capital has not been good, though. It’s been six years since their last Six Nations victory there.
Joe Schmidt and Wales counterpart Warren Gatland will both be bowing out of the Six Nations after Saturday’s match, and their respective players will be desperate to provide a victory for the contributions made by both men.
Gatland has enjoyed considerable success against Ireland since he was relieved of his duties as Irish head coach in 2001. He even appears to take particular delight in upsetting his erstwhile employers.
Schmidt’s success with Ireland has been widely applauded and even Gatland recently admitted that his fellow New Zealander has helped Ireland to make significant progress since he took over the reins.
Of course, Wales are the only country to have a 100 per cent success record in this year’s championship and are optimistic of succeeding Ireland as Grand Slam holders.
Going into last weekend’s Round 4 games, Wales had good reason to be confident, but their poor second half performance against Scotland, coupled with Ireland’s much-improved form against France, has changed the mood somewhat.
For the first time in this year’s championship Ireland performed like the second ranked team in the world. France never looked like winning and were flattered by two late tries.
For Ireland, the bonus-point win was just what they required to restore some of their swagger and keep their outside chance of retaining the trophy alive.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) March 11, 2019
Wales know that if they win on Saturday nobody can catch them. They will be champions. But England are the bookies favourites to lift the trophy.
Should England beat Scotland at Twickenham, Ireland’s hopes will be dashed regardless of the result in Cardiff.
So for the three teams in contention there is everything to play for.
The most encouraging aspect of Ireland’s win at the weekend was the way the pack dominated the French forwards. France have a huge pack and in every facet of the game the Irish held sway up front.
There was a vastly improved display by the half backs also. Conor Murray was far more physically involved and Johnny Sexton benefitted from his scrum half’s crisper pass.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 11, 2019
With Garry Ringrose’s return there was far more threat from the Irish backs and although Robbie Henshaw is not expected to recover from his long-term hematoma in time for the Wales game, Bundee Aki has improved his distribution and his defence has been excellent.
With the late withdrawal of Rob Kearney, Jordon Larmour took his opportunity to put in his best performance for his country. His lightening breaks provided a constant threat to the French defence.
Liam Williams has been the best fullback in this year’s Six Nations but he received a nasty injury at the weekend and he is a doubt for Saturday.
Leigh Halfpenny would be the likely replacement and his place kicking has played a large part in Ireland’s consecutive defeats at the Principality in their last two visits.
The Welsh forwards have played well above expectations during the tournament. Led by the veteran Alan Wyn Jones, they have withstood everything all their opponents have thrown at them.
Their back row of Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty have been very impressive, with all three players having high tackle counts during the competition.
Ireland are likely to be without Josh van der Flier who suffered a stomach muscle tear at the weekend. Jack Conan deputised very well but the balance of the back row would probably be best served by re-introducing Sean O’Brien.
There is little to choose between the two teams and both sides will be desperate to reward their coaches with one final Six Nations success.
In each game so far Wales have done just enough to pull off a victory without being spectacular. Their confidence is high and with their home crowd behind them they will start as slight favourites.
Schmidt would take great pleasure in defeating Warren Gatland, his coaching nemesis. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise if the confidence Ireland will have got from last weekend’s victory doesn’t give them the boost they need to spoil Wales’ Grand Slam party.
Rory Best, Ireland’s captain, said at the weekend that this will be his last Six Nations game and his teammates will be desperate to reward the exceptional contributions from both coach and captain with a famous victory, and retain an outside chance of winning the Six Nations.