Thursday 23 March 2017

Jim Glennon: Welsh template of sustained belligerence will undo us again

Jim Glennon

Jack McGrath has recently shown great improvement Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Jack McGrath has recently shown great improvement Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Rugby's spring is in the air. The sense of unease I wrote of last week appeared to abate somewhat during the week, to be replaced by the annual Six Nations sense of anticipation.

Warren Gatland's team announcement characteristically threw up a few surprises, notably the selection of Rob Evans at loosehead ahead of Gethin Jenkins. From an Irish perspective, the capacity of our front five to provide the physical platform required to create the benign circumstances in which their colleagues can perform is paramount.

In the injury-enforced absences of Mike Ross and Marty Moore, it was between Connacht's Nathan White and Leinster's Tadhg Furlong for the tighthead slot, and White's greater experience won out. Regardless of his identity or his tally of caps however, the wearer of the green No 3 was always going to be subjected to a rigorous examination.

The absence of both established tightheads should have been a real opportunity for Wales and an ideal one, I would have thought, for the wily Jenkins; it will be fascinating to see what Evans can bring to the party, and what Gatland has up his sleeve. Either way, it must be said that while their back-row unit may be a match for the very best, the composition of their front three won't have unduly interrupted Joe Schmidt's sleep last night.

The unit of Evans, Scott Baldwin and Samson Lee has a distinctly unfamiliar ring to it and while they're all competent players at this level, none have shown themselves to be endowed with the destructive scrummaging abilities enjoyed by others in the competition.

In Jack McGrath, probably the most improved member of Schmidt's squad, new skipper Rory Best and White, the Irish unit has the ability to absorb anything the Welsh may present, and possibly even dish out some punishment in return.

With Cian Healy absent through injury more often than not of late, and well short of his best when present, McGrath has gone about his business in a quiet and unassuming manner - not dissimilar to that of Best - and has developed into one of the better looseheads in the tournament.

Wales come into the game on the back of two wins over Ireland in 2015. In both encounters, the Six Nations game in Cardiff and the World Cup warm-up match in Dublin, they displayed levels of sustained physical belligerence with which Ireland struggled; the gain-line often seemed an impenetrable front and while Ireland frequently managed to retain the ball through numerous phases, territorial advances were at a premium, with attacks invariably foundering on either a poorly-executed kick/chase or a turnover.

The Welsh second-row and loose forwards of Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau will be key today too. Even with Dan Biggar, one of the game's form out-halves, and potential match-winners in Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and George North across the backline, the outcome of the physical battle up front will be paramount.

While the absence of Paul O'Connell's basic rugby-playing ability and massive work-rate will be keenly felt, his role of physical anchorman/enforcer shouldn't be forgotten either, and with his young replacement Iain Henderson and his apparent successor in the leadership role, Peter O'Mahony, both injured, there's a sense of vulnerability about the Irish forwards as a unit, particularly in the second row.

Gatland and his pack will seek and probably expect physical dominance and it's in such situations, with the home team shorn of some key leaders, that players must stand up. It's essential too that the level of physicality shown this season by new cap CJ Stander be raised even further.

Gatland's selection of Tipuric at open-side, with Warburton moving into Dan Lydiate's blind-side berth, seems to indicate an intention to inject some additional pace into their game, while at the same time pursuing Johnny Sexton, Ireland's pivotal player, with venom.

In that context, Robbie Henshaw at inside-centre beside Sexton will be a major player for Ireland, with and without the ball. During last year's Six Nations and in the World Cup, particularly against France, he showed an ability to take the initiative and make significant interventions. The manner in which he embraces the physical assault from Roberts could well have a major bearing on the result.

There is a view that if Ireland can start well today, then a result is a real possibility; the same applies to the tournament as a whole - a win today puts us right in the mix. The reverse is equally applicable.

Time and again we've seen the importance of momentum in this competition and a winning start gives huge advantage and is a massive prize. It will be tight.

The bookies had Ireland installed as three-point favourites all week, narrowing to a one-point margin on Friday as the game approached.

I hope I'm wrong, but I have a feeling that the template set by Wales in last year's clashes between the teams will play out once more. Then again, Joe might just have something up his sleeve for us all.

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