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Dublin: 11°C Monday 19 April 2021

Ireland's front row face true test against world class Welsh

The influence of referee Wayne Barnes has been highlighted as a key in Saturday’s clash.

Ireland's scrum fared well against a weak Scottish side.
Ireland's scrum fared well against a weak Scottish side.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

WALES’ WORLD CLASS back row will take up much of the discussion of opposition strength in the build-up to Ireland’s second Six Nations clash, but the men in front of them deserve equal respect.

While Andrew Coombs is the third-choice option alongside Alun-Wyn Jones in the locking department, Warren Gatland has been able to restore his ideal front row with the return of Gethin Jenkins from his recent knee problems.

The work of both sides’ tight fives will be a key deciding factor in the outcome of Saturday’s encounter, nowhere more obviously than in the scrum. Adam Jones has enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading proponents of this set-piece across the world in recent years, but finds himself under pressure to prove that he is not a fading force.

Alongside him is the ferocious Richard Hibbard, one of the toughest players in Europe and a man who has improved vastly in the last three years. The 30-year-old packs an aggressive punch in the tackle and when carrying the ball, although Rory Best’s breakdown work is more effective.

Hibbard provides genuine strength at scrum time too, while Jenkins on his left is an experienced loosehead prop. His spell with Toulon two seasons ago was a disaster and in truth, his form has not fully returned since but he will relish his duel with Mike Ross.

Scrummaging has never been a strength for Ireland for any sustained period of time, simply a means of restarting play as the laws of the game suggest it should be. There is no real scrum culture in Ireland, although there have been moves made recently to begin to build something of that nature.

imageMike Ross has been a cornerstone for Ireland at the scrum. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

On the positive side of the coin, Ireland have not been massacred at scrum time since that infamous day at Twickenham in 2012. Games haven’t been lost simply due to scrum weaknesses and there have not been frequent occasions on which our national team has allowed itself to be dominated there.

That accepting attitude is most certainly not one that Joe Schmidt will be operating under however, with forwards coach John Plumtree and scrum specialist Greg Feek detailed with ensuring that Ireland are increasingly efficient at the scrum.

Plumtree, a former back row player for the Natal Sharks, is pleased with how his work is progressing so far.

I think our scrum has been really good. We didn’t concede any penalties or free-kicks against Scotland. Mike Ross is a good tighthead prop and Cian Healy is a world-class loosehead. Rory Best is an outstanding hooker. That front row is experienced.

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“We’re working really hard and Greg’s done a really good job in that area, so we’re pretty happy with the form.”

A high-quality front row is nothing without sufficient back-up in international rugby, and Ireland have been working hard to develop that too. In Jack McGrath and Martin Moore, Plumtree recognises that he has two young players who are ready to push for starting places.

The combination of diligent coaching at Leinster and two physically gifted specimens has resulted in McGrath and Moore being ready to challenge Healy and Ross for their places. 34-year-old Ross feels he has plenty of top-level rugby left in the tank, while Healy is demonstrating that he is of the highest quality.

imageMcGrath made an impressive 18-minute cameo off the bench against Scotland. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.

The Leinster tyros are developing at such a rapid rate that one would not fear for their survival if they were to start against the grunt of Wales. However, this may not be the occasion on which Schmidt elects to throw McGrath and Moore into the bear pit. Their expected contributions from the bench will be vital nonetheless.

For Saturday, Healy, Best and Ross are likely to take on that Welsh power, with the weight of Devin Toner and Paul O'Connell behind them as important as ever. In what should be an evenly-matched tussle, Plumtree points out that getting on the right side of the referee could be decisive.

I mean the big thing is that you need to know how to adjust to the opposition, that's what happens up in that front row. We need to make sure that we have a quality referee that's going to be able to referee those battles.

"We just want to paint the right pictures to the referee that we're doing the right things. Like I said, we've conceded hardly any penalties or free kicks in that area since we started."

Wayne Barnes, are you listening? The Englishman may be the most influential figure in this weekend's intriguing clash.

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Murray Kinsella

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