It’s down to the final weekend of the 2019 Guinness 6 Nations and whilst it may not be the Grand Slam decider that Joe Schmidt and his squad would have hoped for, it is a massive test of this Irish team’s credentials in their last competitive game before the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. In a match of RWC knockout intensity, can Ireland turn over a Welsh side that has one hand on the Slam? PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy runs the rule over what is set to be a gargantuan clash
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After a facile enough win against the hapless French, Ireland are set to step up to a whole new level when they run out at the Principality Stadium tomorrow afternoon. With a theoretical Championship at stake for both sides, not to mention the Grand Slam for Warren Gatland’s men, the stage is set for high drama.
Needless to say, there are a huge amount of sub plots around this game. It’s the last 6 Nations game for both head coaches. Ireland have a losing Cardiff record under Schmidt and yet he’s never lost a closing 6 Nations game. The Welsh applied huge pressure to have the roof closed and Ireland shrugged their shoulders and effectively forced it to stay open. Then there’s the weather and we aren’t even on to selection yet!
In terms of the teams lining up, there’s been a huge amount of subterfuge during the week, with all sorts of kites being flown, by Ireland in particular, regarding key selections. The starting XV selected by Joe and his coaching staff is very much a ‘horses for courses’ one, with a few very specific individuals brought in due to their Welsh connections. It is great to see Tadgh Beirne get his first start in the 6 Nations, after being unlucky with injury this season. With his Naas RFC roots and his unconventional career path, he’s a guy who has shown massive resilience and no little skill getting to this point. It is hard on Ultan Dillane to miss out on a squad place for this one but Beirne, with his blue scrumcap, will strike a bit of fear into a Welsh public and team that will be all too aware of his open field and breakdown abilities from his very successful stint with the Scarlets. His selection effectively gives Ireland an extra back rower and significantly ratchets up the pressure on Justin Tuipiric, who also has Sean O’Brien at 7 to contend with. It makes for a truly abrasive and mobile Irish pack, one that can really go toe to toe with a Welsh eight that have mastered everyone else this Championship. Beirne also brings a massive amount of inside knowledge about this Welsh squad and that won’t have gone untapped in the preparation for this game. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s selection is a real mind play by Schmidt towards Gatland, with the wounds from the Tullow man’s criticism of the management of the 2017 Lions tour not long healed, if healed at all.
The selection of Beirne and Kieran Marmion brings the total number of players used by Joe this 6 nations to a massive 36 players. It’s easy to forget that with all the collective soul searching we’ve had over the last 5 weeks, a huge number of injuries have forced us into an unprecedented level of selection disruption. Stand back from it and given all these changes, it’s pretty remarkable that Ireland are still in with an outside chance of winning the 6 Nations. It’s hard not to feel that this level of strength in depth (especially in adversity) has to work in our favour in a World Cup year.
Looking at the likely approach in terms of tactics, bringing back Rob Kearney was a no brainer with the level of control it gives us in the backfield, something that we’ve lacked at times. Jordan Larmour did well against France in most aspects of the game but it is still clear that he has a little bit to go experience-wise to match Kearney’s positional nous. With the magnificent Liam Williams carrying a knock and with the roof open to the elements, it won’t surprise anyone that I expect Ireland to go after the Welsh backfield in the air early on. Conor Murray only box kicked once against the French so it may be that Johnny Sexton continues to take much of the responsibility here, allowing Murray to focus on creating danger and doubt closer to the breakdown. The Irish pressure on these kicks is critical and amongst the many great features to his game, the kick chase from Garry Ringrose is a massive asset here.
On the Welsh side, I really don’t get the blind persistence with Anscombe at 10. For me, he lacks a real big game controlling presence, and is too hot and cold. He may have come through the English game but the difference when Biggar appeared against them was stark. I really believe that the added pressure attached to tomorrow’s game may well get the better of him. Dan Biggar is a class act and if Ireland can get a vice-like grip on the game before he appears around the 55-60 minute mark, it might well be a case of too little, too late.
In terms of style, needless to say, I’m expecting a proper attritional affair, with the two main battle lines being drawn around the gain line collisions and the aerial supremacy. These have been the bedrock of Ireland’s success under Joe and if they can get back to the level that they reached in November, then I’d like to think that we have a great chance to come out the right side of a very tight match. There won’t be much space for either attack, with the old Wigan teammates Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards both gunning to win the line speed battle, so smart tight handling and tactical kicking in behind is going to be crucial to eke out territorial dominance. For this Irish team, at this stage of their development going into full RWC planning, its the ideal audition for a World Cup Semi Final against a one of the big guns, so we’ve got to be expecting a massive performance.
Prediction: Ireland by 3 points
See all the picks for the PSA Academies 2019 NatWest 6 Nations Predictions Challenge here