Jones propping up a crumbling empire
Talismanic tighthead key to Welsh hopes in injury-hit pack
Published 29/01/2013 | 05:00
It was the 40th anniversary of THAT try last weekend. Started and finished by deft Welsh hands, the stunning Barbarians score against the All Blacks in 1973 could have acted as a signature tune to the searing dominance of the Principality in the 1970s.
But that wondrous side didn't harbour all their devilish intent amongst the higher numbers. Up front, their havoc was all-conquering, too.
The storied Pontypool front-row – Bobby Windsor, Charlie Faulkner and Graham Price – started 19 games for their country together and won 15 of them.
A generation later, Wales are still compiling Grand Slams with unnerving regularity – three in seven years, more than Ireland have compiled in history – but they approach 2013 with the ground shifting uneasily beneath them.
The team itself are a crumbling edifice; seven defeats in succession would have left their coach on the verge of dismissal were it not for the fact that Warren Gatland is already absenting himself on Lions duty.
For all that, caretaker Rob Howley, who coped miserably as a 2012 stand-in but has brought in Mark Jones as attack coach, is likely to take to the field with a strong selection behind the scrum when he names his side on Thursday.
Although they may only dwarf the 1970s legends in terms of shirt size, their ability to pack a punch has been good enough to topple Ireland on three successive occasions.
Whether they can win enough ball to be released in perpetual, physical motion is the real quandary for Howley and, as such, Ireland will seek to exploit the opposition's perceived weaknesses up front his weekend.
Just as Ireland relay nightly novenas for the continuing good health of Mike Ross, so too Wales submit to their deities in application for the well-being of Adam Jones.
With Wales seeking to launch their monstrous strike-runners at Ireland from deep, the strength of their scrum will be key, and the ability of Jones to lock down for as much of the 80 minutes as possible will be key.
That is especially the case as he will be minus the first two people he would choose to stick their heads between his legs, as it were, given that both World Cup tighthead locks, Luke Charteris and Alun-Wyn Jones, are MIA.
"Adam Jones is going to be key for us," concedes Howley.
"It's good to have him back, an experienced player, a British Lion, and, from what I've seen over the last six weeks, the scrum has had a huge impact on the outcome of games.
"International rugby is about having a foundation, and we believe we will have an effective foundation to work off in the Six Nations.
"When you look at our nine front-row players selected, we've got real strength in depth."
Would that Ireland could be so enthused by their options, much as Anthony Foley yesterday attempted to play down the hand-wringing concerning the ability – or more to the point inability – of Michael Bent to hold his end up as evidenced by last Friday's implosion in the Sportsground.
"There were a couple of scrums there at the end of the second half and the boys got caught on a couple of occasions," countered Foley.
"You can go through it in finer detail and you'll find that the second-row and the flanker didn't help him at times."
Mike McCarthy's introduction here should help the tighthead, at least, while Cian Healy has shown himself less likely in recent times to be out-foxed, although Jones and himself have enjoyed varying fortunes in recent head to heads.
"If we get underneath the tighthead then we have him beaten," according to Healy. "But he knows how to defend that. He's been around the block. So it's just a case of trying to wear him down, catch him off his guard and get underneath him."
Rory Best's scrummaging ability will also be key as Ireland seek to negate the Welsh front-row.
Even without Paul O'Connell's ability to rule the airspace, Ireland should see the battle out of touch as one they can win handsomely, simply because Wales are injury-ravaged in this area.
All four of Wales' favoured second-rows are currently injured and only one of them, Ian Evans, who is hopeful of making the team announcement, now pushed back to Thursday, is likely to make the starting XV.
Injuries to Alun-Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and Charteris have denuded Wales of the soaring talents that they may seek to put their dangerous attackers on the front foot and Ireland will definitely seek to take advantage here.
Indeed, Declan Kidney would probably like to give Peter O'Mahony the nod ahead of Chris Henry so that he can include as many line-out options as possible in an attempt to disrupt one of the key platforms of attack, as well as offering his own side key front-foot options.
Foley was talking up the claims of Romain Poite as one of European rugby's best officials yesterday, although Leinster fans might query that particular charge given his errant handling of their final Heineken Cup pool game against Exeter Chiefs.
Leinster were particularly incensed at his breakdown interpretations that day and, should Ireland fall into a familiar trap against Wales of not feeding enough bodies into ruck time, then it could be a long afternoon.
Henry's skill in winning turnovers will add to the turmoil of the Irish coaches when selecting the other back-rower to partner Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, but Wales too have puzzling selection decisions.
The absence of Dan Lydiate and the injury-enforced decision to almost certainly switch Ryan Jones to the troubled lock department could require a shift in focus from Sam Warburton, once one of the world's pre-eminent opensides, onto the blindside.
Justin Tipuric could stay at No 7 and he has excelled in that role but, as with the Irish selection, the key will be ensuring that the balance is right, whether the side is in attack or defence mode.
"I think all referees will allow a contest once it's fair and you are on your feet and it is within the laws of the game," said Foley.
"The laws allow a contest there, they look for a contest there but what they don't want is deliberately slowing down the ball, not rolling away, deliberate foul play, playing the scrum-half, getting in the way of the scrum-half, slow retreaters: they don't want that in the game."
The difficulty for Ireland is that Poite has indulged a lot of this on his watch so Ireland need to make sure that they play him cleverly from the off, otherwise he tends to disproportionately penalise just one team.
And THAT try can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwCbG4I0QyA