Sunday 20 January 2019

Warren Gatland says Ireland are not the best side in Six Nations as Wales target Sexton and Murray

Sexton and Murray and (inset) Warren Gatland
Sexton and Murray and (inset) Warren Gatland
Dan Biggar. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Wales are out to turn Ireland's greatest strengths into a weakness by targeting Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, according to Warren Gatland.

The New Zealander has plenty of inside information on the duo having coached them on successive Lions tours and plans on getting in their faces when the sides meet at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

Gatland yesterday named Lions trio Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny in his starting XV for the clash, with George North held in reserve despite a return to fitness.

Biggar returns after a shoulder injury kept him out of Wales' win over Scotland and narrow defeat to England, while Williams also missed the first two games and Halfpenny was a late withdrawal from the team at Twickenham.

Despite losing that game, Gatland is bullish about his side's prospects and dismissed the notion that Ireland are the best team in the tournament.

His record against Joe Schmidt is a good one and last year he celebrated victory over Ireland in Cardiff. Sexton needed a Head Injury Assessment during the first half of that game and was sin-binned before half-time, while Murray suffered a serious shoulder injury. And Gatland believes the twin-threats of Ireland's half-back pairing can be targeted.

"We've got to attack them," he said of Murray and Sexton. "We've had some pretty good success not allowing Johnny too much time and space on the ball. Our line-speed defensively has got to be good. We have got to put Conor and his kicking game under pressure - we have to be prepared to be pretty physical against them.

"The way Wales played at home against them last year was outstanding, the kind of model and benchmark to take to Ireland. We have got to be physical against them up front and stop the running power of someone like CJ Stander, who's a big go-forward player."

The return of Wales' Lions saw the spread come in by a point and news that Tadhg Furlong is expected to miss out for Ireland may narrow the margin further. Although they lost to England, Wales can leapfrog Ireland on the Six Nations table with victory.

And their head coach, who backed his side to win the tournament at the outset, dismissed the notion that Joe Schmidt's team are the strongest in the field.

"No," he said. "England are a tough outfit. Ireland ground out a win in France. You've got to keep your discipline against Ireland. Our discipline has been excellent in the first two games - we only gave away two penalties against England.

"We've got to make sure we don't give Ireland an opportunity to kick to the sidelines by giving away penalties and execute their driving lineout, which is pretty effective, and allow Johnny Sexton to keep their scoreboard ticking over.

"Andy Farrell won't be happy with Ireland conceding 19 points against Italy. Two of three of Ireland's tries against Italy were from turnover situations and an interception. We've got to make sure we don't get caught up in that, keep our patience defensively and our discipline has to be good.

"They tend to be close encounters. We know it's a massive, must-win game, in Dublin against a team that are difficult to get the ball off.

"They're comfortable playing through lots of phases, they've got an excellent kicking game, their 9/10 combination is probably one of the best in world rugby. We've got a job to do to try and shut them down."

Wales (v Ireland) - L Halfpenny (Scarlets); L Williams (Saracens), S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans (all Scarlets); D Biggar (Ospreys), G Davies; R Evans, K Owens, S Lee (all Scarlets); C Hill (Dragons), AW Jones (Ospreys); A Shingler (Scarlets), J Navidi (Cardiff), R Moriarty (Gloucester). Reps: E Dee (Dragons), W Jones (Scarlets), T Francis (Exeter), B Davies, J Tipuric (both Ospreys), A Davies (Scarlets), G Anscombe (Cardiff), G North (Northampton).

Irish Independent

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