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Welsh coach ready to unleash blueprint of brawn over brains

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Sam Warburton

Sam Warburton

Sam Warburton

Four days out and Wales are preparing tactics not theatrics.

The only explosions being unleashed in the Vale of Glamorgan are the familiar peals of laughter emanating from head coach Warren Gatland.

The mood music in the room disabuses any notion of a country preparing for war.

"It's not Syria," Alun-Wyn Jones had grinned at the TV cameras earlier when asked to brace himself for potential hostilities in Dublin.

The bubble of hype needs little more inflation from the participants.

In any event, Wales' recent run of championship success and pre-eminence over Ireland has largely reduced Gatland's need to fire off a few verbal barbs in order to shelter his team.

Strategy has supplanted sarcasm.

The curious pattern of away victories in this fixture has prompted the laughter; Wales and Ireland are more comfortable winning games on opposition soil than on home turf.

Even during Gatland's time with Ireland? "It was pretty easy," he smiles, sending the room reverberating into puddles of forced amusement.

"We have not lost away since March 2011. That's a pretty good record. We are pretty comfortable in this tournament.

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"There is no team we fear and it's great to go away from home and have that confidence that you can win and even sometimes you have to grind out the ugly win – that's important too.

"If you look at history over the last 20 years, the ironic thing between Ireland and Wales is that it has tended to favour the away team more than the home side.

"We've played once in the tournament at the new Aviva and had a win there. Hopefully, we go do that again."

As he casts his mind back, we recall that two of his three wins against Wales as Ireland coach came in Cardiff; he lost once in Dublin in his first campaign (1998) before spanking them 36-6 in Cardiff during his last championship in 2001.

Inadvertently, Gatland mentions the Lions tour, albeit the 2001 version, as an example whereby a team can be motivated by a perceived slight – remind you of anyone we might know?

"There was never any fear going to the Millennium Stadium," he recalls, briefly surfing the nostalgia of his Irish days. "When we came here in 2001 at the end of the foot and mouth stuff, we won pretty comfortably.

"And part of the motivation was the Lions tour, how little the number of Irish players had been picked for the Lions compared. That was a real motivating factor for the players."

Seamlessly, he switches to his current status as Welsh boss, even if the segue – "It was never any fear to play away from home" – could apply equally to either country.

"We feel in recent years that the bigger the match we have been able to front up," he says, now firmly focused on Wales.

"If you look back at the World Cup, we were absolutely outstanding. We put in a superb display that day. But Saturday is going to be tough.

"Two years ago in the Aviva, we started well and were very strong in the first 25 minutes but they were dogged.

"They got back into the game and got a penalty which could have won it. We are going to have to use our power and physicality this week."

This is the strategy, limited – albeit effectively so – as it is.

Gatland has also noted, given the predominance of Leinster influence in the Irish side, how they were cowed in Dublin 4 by Northampton in pre-Christmas Heineken Cup combat, despite hosing the English side just a week before.

'They just ran hard," he says simply. "There was nothing flash about it. They just fronted up physically. They were blown away the week before. They were embarrassed by that performance and fronted up physically.

'They had big midfielders that day in Luther Burrell and George North who did a fantastic job. We have some physicality in our back-line so expect us to be fairly direct."

Such a philosophy, after all, has always driven the coach, whatever player he picks (or drops) – the bigger, the better.

And with Wales, he can select from amongst the biggest in the sport. Not all is rosy, as Italy's performance proved last weekend.

Wales's scrum has noticeably depreciated since the new engagement sequence denuded Adam Jones of his strengths.

Now the loss of hamstrung Luke Charteris thieves the lineout of significant height, even if Andrew Coombes impressed in this fixture last time.

And, in terms of the breakdown, Gatland has risked the demotion of noted scrapper Justin Tipuric in order to facilitate the return of his inspirational captain, Sam Warburton.

The bosh of the backs will be needed if the bash of the forwards is cancelled out by Ireland's fearsomely effective pack.

"He's trained well and will give us some mobility," says Gatland of Newport man Coombes.

"He will give us enthusiasm and the thing about Andrew is that he's been around for a little while and he's got an experienced head on him and will bring us some maturity.

"He had a great campaign last year and it's a good opportunity particularly in the autumn when he was not 100pc fit. He's really well respected. We are really looking forward to him playing.'

Gatland, now flirting towards the mischievous, suggested that Ireland have been planning for this game for two weeks, contradicting Schmidt's assertion on Sunday that nothing interfered with Ireland's focus on Scotland.

PHONEY

It's more phoney war stuff; Ireland brazenly conceded last November that they started preparing for New Zealand four weeks in advance; the back-room staff always start prepping for games ahead of time and it will be no different for the second of the back-to-back Six Nations openers.

Ireland's focus will be on how to break down the Welsh defence; Italy's 43rd-minute try last weekend broke a record 600-minute championship sequence for Wales without conceding a try.

In attack, unless Gatland protests too much, few alterations will be made to the one-dimensional approach of brawn over brain. Plan A it remains, then.

'They are a tough team," adds the Kiwi. "And we have to be very direct against them and I think a good example – we mentioned this to the players this week – was that Northampton performance against Leinster.

"How they were embarrassed at home and then you saw how they turned things around the following week. That's a pretty good blueprint about how to play against Ireland."

And Gatland's Wales know that more than most.

WALES (v Ireland) – L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Scarlets), J Roberts (Racing Metro), G North (Northampton Saints); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Racing Metro); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), R Hibbard (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), A Coombs (Newport Gwent Dragons), A Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Racing Metro), S Warburton (capt, Cardiff Blues), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons). Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), P James (Bath Rugby), R Jones (Scarlets), J Ball (Scarlets), J Tipuric (Ospreys), R Webb (Ospreys), J Hook (Perpignan), L Williams (Scarlets).


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