It’s been an Ireland-Wales build-up with a marked difference to what had become the norm. No verbal bombs from Warren Gatland. No gritted teeth riposte from Joe Schmidt either.
Gatland is now busy with the Chiefs, Schmidt less so although he is currently spending a fortnight offering technical advice back on an old stomping ground in Clermont. When they used to clash at Test level it was nearly always an intense week of claim and counter-claim.
With Wayne Pivac and Andy Farrell the new men respectively in charge of Wales and Ireland, the lead-in to Saturday’s showdown has contrastingly been all sweetness and light after too many years of tetchiness and rancour, the sort of nonsense that has this week instead dominated the build-up to the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh.
The only stormy note about the Aviva Stadium encounter has been the weather forecast and what impact the anticipated windy conditions might have on the exchanges. Early February Test rugby is seldom pretty, as teams can be slow to pick up the thread again following their winter lay-off.
But adding to the mix winds that are expected to reach 40kph around kick-off time and you potentially have a recipe for some low frills, up-the-jumper rugby.
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Jim Hamilton breaks down Ireland vs Wales at the Aviva Stadium
This was something Ireland struggled containing last weekend, Scotland’s more robust, confrontational approach leaving the result hanging through to the final whistle.
Farrell’s forwards eventually gritted it out but can they now take their efforts to a higher level and end Wales’ eight-match winning streak in the tournament? RugbyPass runs the rule over some of the pressing issues that could prove decisive:
Johnny be good, Biggar be better
So much depends on this duo. Sexton’s importance to Ireland has become even more pronounced now that he is Farrell’s captain. He judged the mood of last week’s game correctly when kicking to touch and putting Ireland on the front foot to secure their only try rather than just kick the three points that were on offer.
Fans dubious of the decision to give the veteran the captaincy feared his petulance and there was a show of this at one stage when he over-egged an injury, holding his jaw and exaggeratedly writhing on the floor. It wasn’t a good look and can’t be repeated if he is to become a fully respected captain in the O’Connell or Best mould.
He brought more of a ball in hand approach to last week’s win rather than overly rely on boot to ball – look at how Conor Murray kicked for 195 metres compared to just 22 by the out-half. But how he plays it against Wales will be intriguing.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 6, 2020
When Ireland were dismantled last year in Cardiff, Sexton’s discomfort was clear and obvious. The Welsh got under his skin and they will look to do so again, even though it is Dan Biggar directing operations and not the injured Gareth Anscombe who stole the show last time around.
Biggar’s effort last weekend was a contrast to Sexton, using the boot much more to kick for 99 metres. He is a gutsy operator who well knows what it takes to see off the Irish.
Sexton, though, had the bragging rights when they most recently clashed, Leinster running a bus through Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens on the December 7 day Sexton picked up the injury that kept him sidelined until last weekend.
Set-piece security versus French-style refereeing
Wales got themselves into a bind last week at the scrum, only winning five of their eight and conceding three penalties.
Pivac was philosophic about this aberration in midweek and mentioned how he would seek out a pre-game word with Saturday’s referee Romain Poite. But there’s the rub – having a word is one thing, coping with the fussy French official’s mannerisms during a game quite another.
It should be quite a battle at the scrum as Ireland coughed up two penalties last week against the Scots, so both teams will feel they can target each other to see can they gain a decisive nudge here in contrast to the more reliable lineouts each team has.
Poite has Six Nations history of this fixture, taking charge of the game of two halves that was Ireland winning in Cardiff back in 2013 by 30-22. That was the year Wales put the opening round loss behind them and went on to take the title.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
Mean defences… but with a difference
You imagine winning a match by 42 points compared to one with a seven-point margin would produce some contrasting stats. It did.
While match stats provided by AWS suggest Wales’ defence versus Italy turned out to be as shaky as Ireland’s against the Scots even though both teams kept their opposition tryless, there was one distinct difference – Ireland had individual culprits across the board whereas Wales only had the select few at fault.
Ireland missed 21 of its 192 attempted tackles, with fingers pointed at 13 of their starting XV. Josh van der Flier topping that chart with three misses and five other players had two.
Wales, meanwhile, missed 17 of their 208 attempted tackles. Just seven of their starting XV missed a tackle, though, and Johnny McNicholl’s difficult debut was encapsulated by how he missed six tackles. Dillon Lewis was next with three.
There has been much support for Pivac’s decision to shift George North back out to the wing and hand Nick Tompkins a first Test start in midfield, but it didn’t go unnoticed that Tompkins missed two tackles during the 27 minutes he played off the bench. Might that be something for Ireland to nibble at, his inexperience at this level?
Scotland's starting 8 made 133m off 59 runs at the Aviva compared to just 44m off 64 runs in the previous encounter, a ball-carrying threat that caused the overall Irish tackle rate to soar.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 2, 2020
A game of Catt and Jones
With Wales scoring five tries to Ireland’s one in last weekend’s opening round, its safe to say that the Welsh attack under new assistant coach Stephen Jones exhibited more potency than what was delivered by the Irish under their new attack coach Mike Catt.
Any day your outside backs account for five tries must go down as a good outing and it was clear that Jones’ opportunity to work with the squad at the recent World Cup due to Rob Howley’s suspension has given him a head start in now taking things on further under Pivac.
As for the Irish, Farrell’s recruitment of his old fellow assistant from their England days is a punt. Catt only ever had fleetingly rare moments of success during his three and a half years working with the Italians under Conor O’Shea.
However, you would expect whatever ideas he has to pan out better now that he is working with more skilled players in Ireland. There were glimpses versus the Scots last weekend about what he might be trying to implement, a 1/3/2/2 attack shape across four groups being seen at times.
It suggests they will be trying to go through and around opposition in a different way to what used to happen under Schmidt, but how quickly can this bring collective reward and how quickly can the attacking prowess of someone like Jordan Larmour be properly harnessed?
Scoring tries isn’t a must for success, mind. Ireland won the title in 2015 by scoring just eight tries across their five matches and Wales, for that matter, managed just ten – the same as bottom side Italy – in their 2019 Grand Slam.
Jones and Catt, though, will still want to make a quick impression with their various ploys.
Four new captains ?
Four new coaches ?
Six Nations ?
…and lots of media ?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 22, 2020
Why club level envy can again motivate the Welsh
Gatland always had a thing or two to say about how the Welsh regions getting beaten by the Irish provinces was a massively motivating factor whenever Wales took on Ireland at Test level.
“There’s no doubt that some of the Welsh boys are envious of the Irish provinces’ success,” he used to say with regularity, and that pattern hasn’t changed in the slightest this season heading into this latest Test rendezvous.
In eleven PRO14 fixtures so far this term, only one has tipped the way of the Welsh – Scarlets managing to defeat Connacht 18-20 in an early season match-up. Other than that the victories have all been Irish, with Leinster even posting 50 and 53 points when hammering Dragons and Ospreys.
Add in Munster’s two Champions Cup pool wins over the Ospreys and the overall one-sided nature of the results becomes even bleaker, 13 Irish wins and 426 points scored compared to just a solitary W and a meagre 158 points scored for the Welsh clubs.
That’s a situation that will surely sharpen Wales’ motivation like it so often did in the Gatland era.
WATCH: Nick Tompkins can’t wait to start for Wales against Ireland
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