Monday 18 December 2017

Johnny O'Connor: Beware of wounded Welshmen

Schmidt and Co would be delighted with any kind of victory

Joe Schmidt Picture: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt Picture: Sportsfile

Johnny O'Connor

It's been a relatively good few weeks for Connacht as they continue their hunt for Champions Cup rugby for next season, and now they can take the back seat for a few weeks while Ireland take centre stage.

The Six Nations is brilliantly poised with England, Ireland and Scotland in a three-way tussle to win the crown for 2017. And this weekend could be a defining moment in the Championship.

Ireland face a wounded Welsh side at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff tonight, in what is almost a novel fixture for the Irish - a Friday night game.

No one will get sidetracked by the fanfare, and the 'Friday Night Lights' scenario, there's too much at stake on the pitch. And I expect a rip-roaring approach from the Welsh who will look to bounce back.

They lost to a good Scottish side last time out, but still they would have hoped to take a win from that game. And their attack has been criticised widely in recent weeks.

It's the same attack that always works so well in this tournament; there is a reason Wales had been one of the dominant forces in the Six Nations under Warren Gatland, and that's because they use that game-plan expertly.

Now with Rob Howley at the helm they have continued to adopt that approach, and it's something that can be very effective for a short run-in to games. The problem is other teams can deal with the predictable play now.

Ireland have a trump card though, and that comes in the form of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, who are arguably the best half-back pairing in the world right now. When they are on song, they can read any defence, and their kicking ability and variation in play means no defence can get comfortable. Still, Wales have put in some incredible performances in the past - whether it's in defence, where you can't score against them, or in attack, they can just come alive.

You would like to think Ireland can be victorious and it will come down to the England against Ireland game on St Patrick's weekend in Dublin; that's the dream anyway.

Ireland have to take it one game at a time, and all of the players are clued in to that, they won't be look past Wales. It's going such an incredibly physical evening in Cardiff, and Ireland need to deal with that first.

Performance Wales are going to put a performance together at some stage and, who knows, that might come this evening.

But elsewhere there could be a shock on the cards when England and Scotland face off at Twickenham tomorrow. Despite not playing well at the moment, England are winning games and they on a bit of a run. But they are just on the back end of that now, and are beginning to play worse and worse.

Under Eddie Jones there has been an initial spike but now there has been a drop-off in performances. And Scotland could turn them over. England haven't played well in this tournament. They beat France, but just about. And Italy made their encounter quite entertaining with 'the fox'.

Scotland are on the crest of a wave and their back-line isn't afraid to have a cut at anyone. England are creaking and who knows what way that one will go.

Back on the provincial side of things, Connacht were immense last weekend, and even if it was only Zebre, Pat Lam's men still showed great character to score a bonus-point victory in dreadful conditions like that.

It would be nice to have Glasgow Warriors now straight away, but I don't think all of Glasgow's internationals will be back for the next game anyway. And even if they are, at the end of the Six Nations it's tough to get right back into club action so it will be advantage Connacht when that game comes around.

Connacht have big players coming back into fitness at the right time in the season, and I was delighted to see Eoghan Masterson back on the field last weekend.

Sport is not life or death at the end of the day, but when you pick up an injury like he did, you can contemplate your career ending. It's a measure of the man that he got back on his feet, and is out playing for Connacht again.

Irish Independent

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