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Wales' Alun Wyn Jones

Wales' Alun Wyn Jones

How Ireland size up to Wales' Backline

How Ireland size up to Wales' Backline

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Wales' Alun Wyn Jones

There has been talk of Syria in the Welsh camp, but Ireland will not be expecting any Damascene conversions at Lansdowne Road this Saturday.

While Alun Wyn Jones was shrugging off the ferocity of the Dublin crowd by favourably comparing the Irish capital to the war-torn Middle East in terms of the intimidation factor, his coach was confident his huge backs can do some intimidating of their own.

"We have some physicality in our back line, so expect us to be fairly direct," Warren Gatland said matter-of-factly.

'Warrenball' is alive and well and the visiting team are not disguising their intent.

Up front, there may be little to separate these teams, but the Lions coach is trusting those behind the scrum to prove the difference and he doesn't feel the need to be shy about it.

Wales are aware that Ireland know what to expect and they are backing themselves to power through regardless.

The sheer size of this collection of Welsh backs named by Gatland is something to behold. It used to be that pack weights were put up on screen during scrums, but the broadcasters could do the same for the back lines this weekend with Ireland down more than a stone a man.

Leigh Halfpenny is giving up height and weight to Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton is slightly taller than Rhys Priestland, but apart from that, the advantage is all red and it will be occupying the mind of Joe Schmidt this week.

The New Zealander has faced these players before, but the versions differ. When they line out for their regions they are generally pussy cats, when they don the red jersey they become, well, Lions.

Schmidt will call on the memory of facing Scarlets trio Priestland, Scott Williams and George North in the Heineken Cup last year and coming out on top in Llanelli.

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The reigning champions never really got going that day, but still won comfortably with their try coming from a Sexton cross-kick to North's wing.

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The giant ball-carrier looked disinterested and the Scarlets didn't do themselves justice, with Leinster winning, as they tend to do, against Welsh opponents.

At international level, however, the trio will be unrecognisable, along with the rest of this side, who, under Gatland, have reached a World Cup semi-final, won the last two Six Nations and dominated the Lions selection last summer.

While much of the build-up will centre on the decisions made in Australia, the real relevance is the recent relationship between the sides and it is the visitors who have shaded it, despite Ireland's win in Cardiff last season.

"They have got some outstanding individuals, especially in midfield, where they have game-breakers, guys who can get go-forward from nothing and create an opportunity where there is an off-load and can get behind you," Ireland forwards coach John Plumtree said yesterday.

"They have got a real belief that they are more physical than the opposition and they can get on top of them and that is something they'll be looking to do at the weekend.

"They do lots of things really well. They have big backs and are possibly one of the best back lines in the world."

Part of Plumtree's pack's job will be to deny the Welsh front-foot ball, keep possession and back up the backs in the defensive line.

Behind the scrum, it will be about identifying weaknesses and defending diligently. As Schmidt identified in Parc y Scarlets, the high ball could be profitable despite the taller Welsh backs.

For Dave Kearney, it will be a new experience, even though he has faced all of these opponents separately over the past number of seasons.

While the wingers he is likely to face this weekend are bigger than him, he reckons that the Ireland back three – however it is made up, with Fergus McFadden pushing hard for inclusion – have the technique to trouble the Welsh in the air.

"It's all about your timing on the ball and getting up to it quickly," he said. "If you don't time things well and you find yourself not being able to get a good spring up, naturally enough the taller guy is going to get there first.

"Even if my winger is taller this week, if I'm selected, I'm still going to try and get up and dominate that space."

Schmidt is known for many things, but Kearney revealed that contesting the aerial battle and dominating the air space has long been a less heralded focus of the coach's repertoire.

"It's the first thing that we did in the first couple of days' training that Joe took us on," he recalled.

"It's so important now that he wants, not just back-three players, but the centres as well and 10s to be able to take high balls and be dominant in the air.

"We've done a lot of video work on their back line and then it is obviously down to yourself to do a bit of work as well so you know what to expect.

"It is going to be different because those lads have a lot of power and pace and they are quite big. From an individual point, you just can't afford to give them that much space, because when you give guys like North and (Alex) Cuthbert space they will take it."

The aerial battle won't be decisive, but one imagines Schmidt has a plan in mind for where the Welsh are vulnerable and former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan has suggested this week that Priestland could be the weak link in attack.

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Gatland, as Schmidt said on Sunday, knows his opposite number well and he appears to have been getting some feedback from Maynooth this week – suggesting that Ireland had one eye on Wales from the start of the tournament.

"By all accounts they have spent the last two weeks preparing for this game on Saturday," said the Welsh boss.

"We are aware of that. They are two teams that have won their opening games going head-to-head. It is a massive game for both teams."

In November, Schmidt worked out a way to get under the skins of the best team in the world, but ultimately New Zealand's power, depth and composure shone through.

This weekend, he faces the best team in Europe over the last number of years and there can be no doubt that planning a way to stop the likes of North, Cuthbert and Jamie Roberts will have been top of the agenda in the pre-Six Nations planning.

Gatland knows that, but has backed his big men regardless and he'll fully expect the power of 'Warrenball' to see his side through.


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