HOW THE TIMES have changed in the Six Nations.
Not too long ago, the fixtures with England and France were seen as the two most testing and important of the competition for Ireland. However, winning two consecutive championships has seen Wales step into the foreground of our European focus.
Beyond the success of Warren Gatland’s side, familiarity has bred rivalry. Paul O’Connell explains the situation in a little more depth.
“We know each other very well from the Rabo league and from the Heineken Cup as well. There was a lot of Irish and a lot of Welsh on the last two Lions tours and it’s no secret that we got on very well on both those tours. It’s the same here with Munster and Leinster; when you get on well with people, it adds to the rivalry.
We’ve had a good rivalry with them in the last number of years and they’ve probably come out with the better of it recently. It all adds to the occasion, I think they’ve fantastic players all across the pitch. So do we; guys like Brian O’Driscoll in their last year.
“I think it happens when you’ve good teams – they’ve won the last two championships and they’ve made no bones about the fact that they’re going to do three and hoping to do three in-a-row. It’s a massive game for both teams and it all adds to the hype.”
Stage set; this is the big one. So how do Ireland go about bringing down this Welsh team? Their direct power is well known and Gatland himself has freely advertised that Wales will not be changing their approach any time soon.
However, O’Connell believes that the generally accepted view of the Welsh is too simplistic at present, hiding the imagination that their backline brings to the game.
“They’ve big men, so you just think their game is all about physicality but there’s an incredible amount of skill to what they do as well. I would have seen that in the last two Lions tours. Everyone thinks that that they just launch big men into midfield as the first phase for every play.
“It’s something that they do, but they do it with a lot of subtlety. They’ve a lot of animation out the back, pulling defenders away and you saw that with the try Jamie Roberts created for Scott Williams against Italy [above]. Wales will always be direct, but having worked under Warren Gatland and Rob Howley for the last two Lions tours, there’s an incredible amount of subtlety to it.
“It almost looks more direct than it is, because there’s so much animation going on in the background, to pull centres’ eyes away to the background. Really well-worked moves that essentially look like Roberts just going up the middle, but it’s not.”
Ireland’s defence will have to be at peak levels of performance to halt the imposing Welsh backs, with the return of Gordon D’Arcy at inside centre seen as a move to ensuring that happens. In terms of their own ability to break down Wales’ defence, the set-piece foundation will be as important as ever.
John Plumtree’s line-out and scrum functioned well against an average Scotland pack, but O’Connell recognises that it will quite possibly be a different story against Wales. That assertion comes despite the fact that the Welsh looked vulnerable to the Italian scrum last weekend.
The scrum is just a very difficult thing to predict from week to week. I know in the autumn, we’d a poor day ourselves against Australia, whereby they got a hit and a run in a lot of the scrums. We struggled to deal with that – obviously we expected it to be refereed – but we turned it around in a week and put a really good scrummaging performance in.
“I think Italy have an excellent scrum and Wales have made a change there in bringing in Gethin Jenkins, who’s obviously a big man and a very experienced player, a very experienced scrummager. I know it’ll be a massive part of the game and hopefully we can do well.
“We just want to play off that ball. That’s Joe’s big thing; producing quality ball that the backs can play off. That’s going to be very important for us.”