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Ireland are firm favourites but Schmidt warns of new Welsh strengths

Warren Gatland’s team have been using their forwards to pass the ball more often.
Feb 16th 2018, 6:25 AM 7,333 9

SOME BOOKIES CURRENTLY have Ireland as 10-point favourites for their Six Nations clash with Wales in Dublin next weekend, but Joe Schmidt certainly wouldn’t agree with their outlook right now.

While the Ireland head coach has confidence in his side’s ability to rack up their third win in-a-row in this championship – and what would be their ninth consecutive win overall since beating England last March – he has also been keen to talk up the Welsh.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt at Ireland's training session in Buccaneers RFC yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

No surprise there really, but Schmidt’s praise for the opposition appears to be more than justified.

Wales hammered Scotland on the opening day of this Six Nations before narrowly losing to England in a game in which Gareth Anscombe’s potentially game-changing try was wrongly ruled out.

Warren Gatland and Rob Howley have their side playing an attractive style of attacking rugby, while Shaun Edwards’ defence is as hungry as ever.

There may be returns for Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, Liam Williams, George North [who played off the bench against England] and Taulupe Faletau against Ireland, and then one must consider how Schmidt’s Ireland have struggled against the Welsh.

With just two wins from six games against Gatland and co. in his time as Ireland boss, Schmidt knows better than most how difficult next weekend is going to be, even on home soil.

“They have been very tight fixtures and maybe we are due some margin of luck to fall our way to get a result against them,” said Schmidt yesterday in Athlone after Ireland trained at Buccaneers RFC.

“But we don’t want it to be luck, we want it to be that we make sure that we work hard enough to earn whatever we get from them.”

The manner in which Wales blitzed Scotland on the opening weekend surprised many people, although their shape and tactics were very much a continuation of what we had seen from Gatland’s team in November.

Robbie Henshaw dejected Ireland lost in Cardiff last year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Traditionally thought of as a very direct team who depended on large ball carriers, this is a new-look Wales.

“I think all teams change,” said Schmidt of Gatland’s team. “A lot of the coaching is done by his staff. Their defence, we know they are going to work really hard for each other.

“They’ve a great defensive ethic. They are always very hard to break down. England got a couple of tries, putting the ball in behind them on a very slippery day but they didn’t get more than twelve points. Scotland got seven points.

“It is very meagre returns because that’s the way Shaun Edwards has got them functioning. They are very tough to break down. We would expect an incredibly resilient defence, certainly 13 guys on their feet, in your face, coming hard at you.

“On the other side of the ball, Rob Howley had them humming against Scotland and I thought they attacked really well against England in conditions that, talking to people who were at the game, were pretty tough.

“They’ve got their forwards playing a lot more, they’ve got guys making passes. Samson Lee, some of his handling has been outstanding, Rob Evans the same. Ken Owens has always been a ballplayer and very dynamic ball carrier for them.

“When you’ve got someone like Aaron Shingler, as quick as he is, in the back row, his athleticism has brought a slight change into what they can afford to do. He’s playing in the wide channels and in a very athletic fashion.”

Aaron Shingler gets away from Danny Care Aaron Shingler has impressed in this Six Nations. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It increasingly looks like experienced players such as Halfpenny, Faletau, Biggar and Williams will be back in the mix for Gatland next week, although their replacements have done a decent job in this Six Nations so far.

One could presume their proven track record would make those big-name players obvious picks against Ireland, but Schmidt feels Gatland could keep faith in the personnel who have served him well so far.

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“It would be pretty hard to make too many changes, considering the way they’ve performed so far,” said Schmidt.

“Most people were pretty impressed with the way they went against Scotland. They probably went a fraction better against England because of what it was, the conditions on the day.

“They did open them up a few times. I have very clear memories of the likes of Aaron Shingler running in space and putting the ball ahead, Steff Evans looking dangerous on the wing.

“If guys come back, like Toby Faletau, with Ross Moriarty and Josh Navidi being as good as they have been, it is probably just trying to find out where those guys fit in. Thankfully, they’re not my decisions.”

Indeed, Schmidt has had his hands full over the last two days, with his squad convening in Athlone for a 48-hour mini-camp on Tuesday evening before breaking up for the first rest weekend of the Six Nations.

Chris Farrell is set to come into the team at outside centre, while James Ryan is likely to return alongside Iain Henderson in the second row, with CJ Stander favourite to form the back row with Peter O’Mahony and Dan Leavy.

Cian Healy may nudge back into the number one shirt ahead of Jack McGrath but Ireland’s side will have a settled feel to it nonetheless.

Bundee Aki Ireland had a high-tempo session in Athlone yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One key issue for Ireland is breaking down that strong Welsh defence, particularly having had problems in this department in recent years.

Schmidt said “yes and no” when asked if there has been a temptation to change how Ireland attack against Wales when looking back on previous encounters, before he points out that his team made eight clean linebreaks in last year’s 22-9 defeat in Cardiff, but just couldn’t find the finishing touch.

There will be alterations for Ireland tactically, though Schmidt stressed that such changes are always involved at this level.

“At the last World Cup, Wales were the biggest team – weighing in at an average of 106 kilos a man – so they are a massive team, which makes them a real challenge for us,” said Schmidt.

“They have lightened things up, sped things up and that is going to be a challenge for us.

“Are we going to do something different? What we did against Italy was a bit different from what we did against France, was a bit different from what we did against England [last year] and even South Africa and Argentina [in November] were different.

“Every game is a bit different. We don’t know what the conditions will be yet so we’re not going to get too locked into any particular way of playing yet.

“What we try to do, even in conditions like today – we had the sunshine, we had the horizontal hail – we try to change our game up to suit the conditions, to suit where we are on the pitch, to suit how we think the defence are going to fan out or tighten up and then go from there.

“We’ve got great decision-makers. You’d be surprised how much freedom our players have to play.”

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