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Warren Gatland: 'You do not write off Ireland, you do not criticise Ireland'
The Wales head coach feels Joe Schmidt’s side will move to a more expansive attacking game plan.

Updated at 12.00

THERE ARE FASCINATING coaching match-ups pretty much across the board in the Six Nations this year, but Warren Gatland against Joe Schmidt continues to hold major interest.

Warren Gatland James Crombie / INPHO Gatland won in Dublin last year. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Eddie Jones’ arrival into the England job brings a hugely-experienced heavyweight into the mix, while 61-year-old Guy Novès certainly served his time in the club game before finally taking over les Bleus.

Both new men add intrigue to this Six Nations, though the meeting of Schmidt’s Ireland and Gatland’s Wales on the opening weekend of the championship is in focus right now, the latest chapter in what appears to be an increasingly-friendly rivalry.

Ireland picked the Welsh apart tactically in the 2014 Six Nations on the way to Schmidt’s first title, but Gatland’s men were the victors in last year’s competition and also enjoyed a World Cup warm-up win in Dublin when both sides were near full strength.

The hammering Ireland delivered to the Welsh in the Millennium Stadium several weeks prior to that came against a weakened XV, making it a result that perhaps means less. The last two times he’s met Ireland with his strongest team out, Gatland has won.

In both of those defeats, Schmidt’s men struggled to break down the Welsh defence, that powerful, aggressive beast that Shaun Edwards has driven since 2008.

Gatland’s side were defensively superb at the World Cup late last year too, and it is that foundation that the Welsh will look to build a win in Dublin on 7 February upon.

“We only conceded three tries in the World Cup and given the pool we were in, with very potent teams, and then South Africa [in the quarter-final], we came away from that World Cup with a lot of confidence in terms of where we are defensively,” said Gatland at yesterday’s Six Nations launch in London.

Joe Schmidt with Warren Gatland Dan Sheridan / INPHO Schmidt had a win over the Welsh in 2014. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“You have got to be able to soak up the pressure. We look at last year’s Six Nations game against Ireland, which we won at home, and in the second game in Dublin we were pretty effective as well.

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“Defence is one area we put a lot of effort into and you have got to be strong. Something Shaun Edwards talks a lot about is that defences win trophies and championships. Our defence is strong and we have chance of competing and doing well.”

Given that Ireland struggled to break the Welsh down in those two meetings, the sense is that Schmidt will have to make tweaks to how his men attack Edwards’ smothering line of defenders.

Gatland has spoken on a number of occasions about his belief that Ireland “don’t play a lot of rugby” and the expectation yesterday was that he would take another pot shot at how Schmidt asks his team to approach the game.

However, Gatland was unwilling to provide any potential ammunition for Ireland this close to a Six Nations opener that will have a huge say in the outcome of the title.

“You have got to take your hat off to Ireland in terms of they have had a game plan that has been incredibly effective,” said Gatland. “They have been brilliant in the air, they’ve had a great kicking strategy with Johnny Sexton when he has played at 10 and that has been successful for them.”

Warren Gatland James Crombie / INPHO Gatland avoided making any controversial comments. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Gatland’s feeling now is that with some fresh faces in the squad, and also with Schmidt having had several seasons to instil his ideas, that Ireland may expand their attacking palate.

“I think they will go out with potentially some senior players moved on, some younger players coming into the squad, and I think they will definitely move the ball,” said the Kiwi.

It’s hard as a coach when you have got something that is working for you to go away from doing that and to change a game plan when it has been effective and it has been a winning formula. They will be very effective in doing that but potentially they will play a bit more rugby too.

“What I have learned in the past is that you do not write off Ireland, you do not criticise Ireland. You have got to be very positive about them. Ireland are a fantastic side and they will be a tough team to beat.”

Maybe Gatland is just waiting until next week to get the mind games properly underway. Whatever the case, Dublin in two weekends’ time will be the latest chapter in an intriguing battle of Kiwi rugby minds.

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