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Ireland's Six Nations hopes in the balance ahead of Cardiff clash

Captain Rory Best feels tonight’s meeting with Wales will tell us all we need to know about Joe Schmidt’s side.

Murray Kinsella reports from Cardiff

ONE THING WE can be certain of before tonight’s game in Cardiff is that Ireland and Wales are going to limp off the pitch.

Test rugby is no place for those who cannot stand up to huge physical tolls, but this contest has moved up a gear in recent times.

Tommy O'Donnell lifts Peter O'Mahony Tommy O'Donnell lifts Peter O'Mahony during yesterday's captain's run. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In 2015, at what was then the Millennium Stadium, Joe Schmidt’s side battered and battered the Welsh defence, forcing them to make an eye-watering 250 tackles but ultimately leaving with their tails between their legs before recovering to win the championship.

Last year in Dublin, the ball-in-play time was a deeply fatiguing 42 minutes and 53 seconds, more than three minutes greater than the next highest time in the championship.

Two different types of games, both pushing the players close to their physical limits.

In front of a boozed-up and demanding crowd in the renamed Principality Stadium tonight [KO 8.05pm], it would be a major surprise if this contest didn’t provide something similar.

Wales are fighting to salvage pride after consecutive defeats to England and Scotland, while Ireland are still in the hunt for a Six Nations title, this game essentially serving as a semi-final.

In the sweaty atmosphere a closed roof in Cardiff ensures, the pressure is very real.

“Within the next 36 hours, we will find out a lot,” said Ireland captain Rory Best yesterday. “To come to a place like this and perform in an intense atmosphere will be a big statement of where we are.

“And a big statement of where the squad is, because it is going to take a 23-man effort.

“The last quarter of the game, you would imagine, is going to be finely balanced and it is going to take the bench coming on that is going to be a mark of where this Irish squad is.

Ireland Fans in Cardiff Brendan Guinan, Alan Ryan, Declan Doogan, Paul Hensey and James Hibbitts from Offaly in Cardiff. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Whatever about November – bar the Chicago game – and then the France game [two weekends ago], they were all at home.

“If you look at results historically, it is perceived to be easier to play at home. This will be a big statement of where we are as a squad and how mentally tough we are.”

The two most recent ties against Wales have taught Ireland harsh lessons. In 2015, a dire start saw them give up 12 cheap points and face a major uphill battle before they had even got going.

“It takes a monumental effort to switch that momentum, so that is a big lesson for us – the easiest way to have to switch momentum is for you to get momentum at the start,” said Best. “The easiest time to get momentum on your side is at the start of the game.”

But last year, however, Ireland were 13-0 up on the Welsh after 28 minutes in Dublin and managed to allow the visitors back into the game to secure a 16-16 draw.

“We were not mentally as strong as we needed to be,” said Best. “That was the big lesson – in that you have to keep going.”

The point, really, is that there is no perfect formula here. There are many ways to win and lose a game of rugby, although the low Welsh confidence would strongly suggest that a big start from Ireland this evening can go a long way towards ensuring victory.

The Welsh are wounded, but there is danger in that for Ireland too. Interestingly, Rob Howley and his coaching staff have stuck with exactly the same matchday 23 that lost to Scotland last time out, keen for their players to reward the faith that has been shown.

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“That’s the effect we’re hoping for,” said assistant coach Robin McBryde, “that they feel a bit galvanised by the fact that they get to go again and step up their performance.

Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien Ireland understand the ferocity of the challenge that awaits. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Because there’s no changes there, there’s no excuses really and we’ve shown faith in them, as coaches, that we feel there’s a lot more to come from our group of players and they’re deserving of their opportunity and this is their shot at it.”

Ireland’s unchanged selection was rather less surprising, although the inclusion of Tommy Bowe as the 23rd man did raise an eyebrow or two.

Schmidt is convinced the Ulsterman’s aerial strength can play an important part off the bench, and it would be something of a fairytale for Bowe to make an impact late on as Ireland look to secure the win that would set up a championship decider against England on the final weekend of the championship.

As ever, Ireland will be superbly prepared and are almost certain to come onto the pitch with an intelligent Schmidt game plan, but the key on this occasion may well be in combining the clinical technical execution with a passionate dose of pure aggression.

“It’s a really fine balancing act,” said Best. “You don’t want to be too much over the top so you actually can’t function. If you’re too emotional, you can’t focus on your set-piece or your core skills in the game but, at the same time, in the first half against Scotland, we weren’t where we needed to be.

“We were so focused on being at that ruck at the right time we forgot to make an impact at that ruck, for example. Look, it’s a balancing act and the bigger the games are, you need to tune into the whole emotional side of it, but at the same time you’ve got to be careful to do it too much because everyone knows it’s a big game.

“Because it’s the next game in the championship, because of where we’re playing and how tough it’s going to be. We know that we need to start well because Wales are going to come out of the traps hard at us.

“From that side of things, it’s been a little bit about making sure we control our emotions and that we’re smart and disciplined but, at the same time, we can’t be outdone like we were against Scotland.”

Prediction: Ireland win by six points.

Wales:

15. Leigh Halfpenny
14. George North
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Scott Williams
11. Liam Williams
10. Dan Biggar
9. Rhys Webb

1. Rob Evans
2. Ken Owens
3. Tomas Francis
4. Jake Ball
5. Alun Wyn Jones (captain)
6. Sam Warburton
7. Justin Tipuric
8. Ross Moriarty

Replacements:

16. Scott Baldwin
17. Nicky Smith
18. Samson Lee
19. Luke Charteris
20. Taulupe Faletau
21. Gareth Davies
22. Sam Davies
23. Jamie Roberts

Ireland:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Simon Zebo
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Devin Toner
6. CJ Stander
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell
17. Cian Healy
18. John Ryan
19. Iain Henderson
20. Peter O’Mahony
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Paddy Jackson
23. Tommy Bowe

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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