Defeat could end Six Nations hopes and Kidney's Lions aspirations
THE phrase 'win or bust' is over-used in sport and should only properly be applied to contests where everything is on the line.
An opening outing in the Six Nations does not qualify, but Ireland and their coach Declan Kidney go into tomorrow's showdown with Wales knowing that defeat spells disaster.
It would not mean an end to their Six Nations aspirations, but losing to Wales at home -- particularly in the context of the World Cup quarter-final defeat, not to mention the larceny in Cardiff last year -- would be incredibly demoralising and make victory in Paris six days later a nigh-on-impossible assignment.
There would be massive repercussions for Kidney also. Though he has deliberately refused to dwell on the fact, tomorrow is, essentially, a shoot-out for the Lions job between Kidney and his Wales counterpart Warren Gatland.
It is hard to see Scotland's Andy Robinson forcing his way into contention, so whoever wins tomorrow has to be the front-runner.
Aside from the Lions sideshow, defeat would place Kidney under the sort of intense scrutiny he has yet to experience in a 30-year coaching career.
By sticking with the same players who failed at the World Cup and not bringing in a backs coach (although the short time-frame did not help), if Ireland go down for the third time in a row to the Welsh and the backline fails to click, the heat will come on in a major way.
The flip-side is that an Irish victory founded on the same quality of play and assurance that the provinces have been displaying in the Heineken Cup would open up the championship and send the squad to Paris with the scent of a second Grand Slam in four seasons in their nostrils.
Win or bust? Technically, no, but, with such far-reaching consequences between success and failure, not far off.
1 Starting point
The scrum, as always, sets the tone. Ireland were dominant here at the pool stages of the World Cup, but Wales met them head-on in the quarter-final, gained the edge and confidence flowed through the whole side.
Loose-head Rhys Gill may only have four minutes international experience behind him, but he has shown with Saracens that he knows his scrummaging oats -- as does hooker Huw Bennett and that pair will zone in on Mike Ross.
Gill may have been less than glowing in his summation of Ross ("not a bad player, but Cian Healy is the real threat") but former hooker Gatland knows that Ireland's scrum, while now an eight-man effort, lives or dies with its tight-head. With Paul James (a fine scrummager in his own right) ready to be sprung shortly after half-time and Lions star Adam Jones on the far side, Gatland believes he has the tools to do damage.
Ireland hooker Rory Best has been impressed with Gill and says the Irish pack are expecting to be hit with everything up front -- but they are ready to respond. "He (Gill) is in a Saracens pack that is really dominating the Premiership and Europe as a scrum," said Best. "They have picked a quality front five and it is going to be a big challenge, a bit of an arm wrestle, but one, as a pack, we have spoken about."
2 The Warburton effect
The Welsh captain was immense in Wellington and in Cardiff last year and, if Ireland are to reverse this trend of defeats, they have to have quick ruck ball to work with. It places a massive onus, not just on the back-row but Ireland's clean-outs across the park -- if Warburton gains supremacy, Wales are on their way again.
3 The McFadden option
With Keith Earls ruled out in unfortunate circumstances, the Irish backline takes on a different complexion. While Earls carries a quick-stepping, will-o-the-wisp quality, McFadden poses his own threat to the Welsh defence. With a low centre of gravity and immense leg-drive, McFadden is superb in contact and has the pace to get through gaps.
It also means the Irish can keep the Welsh defenders guessing by swapping their centres around in the old-fashioned left-and-right style, as both McFadden and D'Arcy can play inside or out.
"It does broaden our options, it could be looked at that way," conceded backs coach Les Kiss. "There are some nice little options to work with there now and we can build a centre (partnership) to start with and three reserves to actually give ourselves a broad scope. Fergus has been working with us on certain strategies and tactics in the game."
With no Brian O'Driscoll, this is the perfect afternoon for Gordon D'Arcy to step forward as the senior member of the backline and remind everyone of his quality.
4 Off the top
Ryan Jones gives Wales extra height in the line-out, but Ireland will fancy their chances of providing clean ball on their own throw.
With the scrum increasingly a lottery, the line-out is the best source of possession for first-phase attack and expect some moves to be unveiled here that we did not see in the World Cup, moves that should bring the back three heavily into play.
5 Big and wide
Wales have picked an enormous pair of wingers in the 6' 4" George North and 6' 6" Alex Cuthbert, while centres Jon Davies and Jamie Roberts are not exactly hobbits. Kiss expects all four to be used prolifically as well as the boot of full-back Leigh Halfpenny.
"They'll attempt to unleash their back three in the wide channels," said Kiss. "They have a great presence at midfield and they'll try to challenge in those areas to open space for their width players. They put up high contestables and they've got a long kicking game -- Halfpenny has a long kick on him as well -- so they will play to that in their gameplan."
Those giant wingers also have implications for Ireland's attacking ploys as cross-field kicks for Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble now look to be off the table, although not for their opponents.
6 Hit and Kiss
Ireland's defensive lapses against Wales last time out were uncharacteristic but game-deciding. Under Kiss, Ireland have profited from a miserly defence but though his brief has extended to attacking duties these days, that does mean any lessening of standards when it comes to organising lock-outs. McFadden strengthens the backline in this regard and it is safe to expect no repeat of the looseness of Wellington.
While Ireland were not at their mental peak in Wellington, they have had four months to get themselves into the right psychological frame to put things to rights and there is every reason to expect the same levels of intensity that have proved so effective for the provinces in the Heineken Cup.
That competition is showing the way for the national side as there is no reason why this group of players cannot go into these contests with the same confident expectations of victory.
Wales, even with their injury issues, are a fine side, but so are Ireland and they are not likely to be caught on the hop this time.
Verdict: Ireland should win, because they have to.