Saturday 24 March 2018

Front-five looks equipped to build perfect platform for home victory

Ireland won’t be found wanting in the intensity stakes this time round, writes Jim Glennon

SOME of us older heads are still struggling to come to terms with the Six Nations, and particularly its staggering of games to suit TV schedules. It's difficult enough dealing with back-to-back games on Saturday, but this Sunday gig is just stretching it a bit far!

Thus, unfamiliar as it may be, events at the Aviva Stadium today will wrap up the opening round of games, with Ireland justifiably clear favourites to exact some revenge on Wales and get our campaign off to the necessary start in advance of our foray to the Paris citadel.

While events in Wellington will have little bearing on today's outcome, some reflection is nonetheless apposite. What comes to mind, first and foremost for me anyway, was the starkly contrasting body language of the teams in the crucial opening minutes.

The Welsh were ravenously hungry for the opportunity presented and, having been narrowly beaten by South Africa, took every aspect of the game to an opponent who appeared slightly taken aback by the ferocity of the challenge. This was despite Ireland’s best efforts in the aftermath of the victory over Australia to convince themselves that further progress was no foregone conclusion. Circumstances, and a Welsh effort of massive intensity, then contrived to maintain the Welsh ascendancy throughout the first half, during which Ireland was unable to convert 60 per cent possession into points on the scoreboard.

Today's Welsh team has been shorn of a few key elements of that performance, the retired Shane Williams and the injured Dan Lydiate foremost among them. In addition, Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris are all missing from the Welsh frontfive.

Add in Ireland's home advantage, exacerbated by the fact that none of the Welsh have played in the Aviva before, and also the contrast in fortunes at Heineken Cup level and it all points in the Irish direction. The omens aren't unfavourable on the specifics either. A front-five specifically geared, through the selection of Donncha O'Callaghan ahead of Donnacha Ryan, towards taking the physical battle to the injury devastated opposing quintet will be expected to deliver the platform so markedly absent in Wellington and generate the required momentum for delivery of a consistent supply of quality possession.

Should they manage that, and they should, there'll be no excuses for Stephen Ferris, Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip if they fail to seize the opportunity presented to dominate Sam Warburton and company, thereby reversing the outcome of a crucial battle in their last meeting.

Never before have we had a ball-carrying back row of their quality (Healy, Best and O'Connell are no slouches in this regard either) and it will be a travesty if the raw material they require to prosper — quality possession going forward — is not provided to them. The availability of consistent and decent set-piece possession shouldn't present undue difficulty and Conor Murray, starting his first Six Nations game, has a wonderful opportunity to stamp his class on the tournament from the start.

It's difficult to believe that this time last year the scrumhalf was only starting to make a name for himself as an impact sub with Munster. Twelve months on, his is a key role. A propensity for occasional overinvolvement in the physical side of the game, of which he has shown signs at provincial level, will have to be curbed if his footballing talent is to flourish at international level.

Scrumhalves with cool heads tend not only to have longer careers but usually get on better with their colleagues too! At the top of their games, the trio provide a combination that can be rivalled only by the French One of the great advantages of the modern squad system is the seamless handover from even a linchpin, O'Driscoll, to his successor.

Fergus McFadden comes in to form an all-Leinster midfield axis with Jonathan Sexton and Gordon D’Arcy; the comfort of their relationship will be important as Jamie Roberts and his Welsh colleagues will explore this area for signs of weakness. D’Arcy and McFadden's duties will be of the grafting and heavylifting type and every opportunity will be taken to utilise the skills of the back three as the primary attacking weapon. The Ulstermen Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe offer real striking potential on the flanks, and Rob Kearney has been showing the benefits of a protracted run at fullback for Leinster with a return to something approaching his Lions form of 2009.

At the top of their respective games, the trio provide a backthree combination that can be rivalled only by the French, but a shared tendency to wait for the game to come to them can at times be inhibitive. I'm of the view that a more proactive approach could pay a rich dividend.

Similar to Murrayfield yesterday then, a game with serious implications for both sides. The ‘big mo' is not confined to the politics of the American presidency, and is the prize at stake today. With Paris looming, ours is the greater need. Ireland by seven to 10 points.

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