How Ireland can silence the Millennium
CARDIFF calls and a Grand Slam beckons, but Joe Schmidt's Ireland re-assembled in Carton House last night to step up their preparations for their meeting with Wales with heads full of detail rather than dreams of big achievements.
So far, the New Zealander has outfoxed Jacques Brunel, Philippe Saint-Andre and Stuart Lancaster, so Warren Gatland is well warned of his fellow countryman's potential.
Knowing what the former Leinster coach is going to do and stopping it appear to be very different challenges, however, and as the ground gets firmer and the Ireland squad spend more time repeating their moves in Co Kildare, the better they should become.
Ireland have conceded 23 fewer points than anyone else in this year's tournament and have only given up one try.
That's all despite having the worst tackle percentage in the competition to date; they have rarely looked in trouble during their three games to date, but away from home and against a Wales team still in contention for the title, they will need to keep their standards high.
While they do have one of the game's canniest operators in defence coach Les Kiss, Ireland are not doing anything revolutionary without the ball. Rather, they're limiting the amount of time the opposition have it and ensuring that when they do, they are as far away from the try-line as possible.
Wales have not been at their most fluent this Championship but in Rhys Webb they have one of the true game-breakers in the northern hemisphere right now.
The Ospreys scrum-half's ability to snipe around the fringes will be known to everyone in the Irish squad from their provincial outings and Kiss will be drilling his 'pillars' to hold their ground at the Millennium Stadium.
That means the two men on either side of the ruck sticking to their position and not following the ball in case the lively No 9 cuts back inside.
Wales will look to unleash their big men in midfield and Taulupe Faletau in the wide channels, but if Robbie Henshaw (pictured) can handle Jamie Roberts off first phase and keep the gainline intact, then Ireland should be able to handle what's coming.
Gatland has already said his side will be targeting the ruck as he learns the lessons of last year's humbling at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland are the most efficient team in the tackle area and they destroyed England at the breakdown two weeks ago. According to Prozone, their ball was quicker and they committed more bodies to the ruck, meaning the lack of penetration from their running game was off-set by their ability to force England into more tackles and more penalties.
It's an area of strength for Wales captain Sam Warburton, and France managed to get in on Irish ball under the watchful eye of Saturday's referee Wayne Barnes, who allowed Les Bleus to block the Irish ruckers' arrival, but Ireland dominated the breakdown last season and will target it again.
On Wales ball, they will hope to get to the ball before the arriving support players and force penalties to sap momentum from the home side.
Simon Easterby will have pored over the tape of Wales contesting every one of France's throws to no avail in Paris and will bank on them trying again at the Millennium Stadium.
That would allow Ireland set their maul before the Welsh pack get to ground and, once they start going forward, they will be hard to stop. When down, it will be up to the lifters to stop Luke Charteris coming through the middle in an attempt to hold up the ball and earn a scrum.
One thing Wales did successfully last year was sent Faletau through to stop Conor Murray getting his pass away when Ireland went off the top.
In the scrum, Ireland will look to play off their own ball and attack the Welsh on their put-in. Schmidt is sure to have noticed the French linebreak that exploited the gap between Dan Biggar and Webb off the back of a scrum in Paris.
Ireland have come under fire for their lack of tries, but they insist they have been close to breaking through on a number of occasions, particularly when introducing their clever set-moves against England.
Schmidt will have noted with interest how Jonathan Davies rushed up against France and allows space out wide, while Biggar is often hidden in the back three.
Wales are expecting an aerial assault so the fringes may be abandoned in anticipation of the high ball.
The Sexton wrap-around is an option to exploit that space, while Henshaw's passing game may be unveiled, with Wales expecting him to crash it up through the middle.
Ireland most effective attacking weapon to date has been their ability to successfully retrieve high balls, but they are unlikely to find Wales as charitable as England were.
They will use the boot of Murray and Sexton to exit any awkward situations, while any poor alignments in the Welsh back-three will be picked off by Ireland's half-backs.
Still, it seems unlikely that they will kick as frequently as they did two weeks ago and will need more.
One of Schmidt's great achievements is getting Barnes on his side and the presence of the English official won't worry Ireland unduly at the Millennium Stadium.
The champions' ability to consistently come out on the right side of the penalty count is their greatest weapon, denying opponents the opportunity to build a score while allowing themselves to build pressure in play and on the scoreboard.
Discipline allows the rest of the facets of Schmidt game-plan to flourish and underpins everything they do.