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Friday 18 August 2017

Brent Pope: Ireland have skill to handle bludgeon by Wales

Ireland's Robbie Henshaw during an open training session
Ireland's Robbie Henshaw during an open training session

The headline later this week read "Irish Boost, Sexton will be ready". In my opinion that underplays Sexton's influence on this Irish team, both in this Six Nations Championship and looking forward to the World Cup.

Basically, with Sexton in form Ireland are a real threat to any team in the world - without him they are substantially weaker. Yes, he is that good. While Welsh Coach Warren Gatland fields an unchanged Welsh side for this crucial match, Joe Schmidt will also be licking his lips as all his key players including the previously injured No 8 Jamie Heaslip look set for action.

From the very first weekend of this year's championship I always believed that - despite an incredible away record in Cardiff - this would be the hardest game for Ireland to win, the game that would ultimately decide if it has been a good Six Nations for Ireland or a great one. If Ireland win in Wales then I am certain that they will win the Grand-Slam.

Ever since Joe Schmidt's side humiliated Wales in the Aviva this time last year, former Irish Coach Warren Gatland has been desperately waiting in the long grass for the re-match. For a decade or so Gatland has been been the toast of Northern Hemisphere rugby coaching and the great Welsh redeemer.

An ex All Black hooker, who not only took English club Wasps to Heineken Cup glory, and Wales to grand slam glory but also the man entrusted to renew much needed momentum to the British and Irish Lions in Australia.

Gatland is now clearly feeling the heat. The outspoken Welsh coach has never shied away from publically airing his views; sometimes it seems almost goading opposition managers into unneccessary pre-match hype.

Conversely, his opposite Joe Schmidt has an affable and articulate media personality, always coming across as a humble and self-deprecating man that puts his team ahead of his own ego.

STEALING

Since Schmidt's success with Leinster and now Ireland, Gatland will feel that Schmidt is stealing his crown - and he wants it back. He will also feel that the powers that be in New Zealand rugby will be viewing Schmidt as a possible future All Black coach.

While Gatland's stock may be falling, even in his native land, with Wales, you pretty much get exactly what it says on the tin. You know what is coming in terms of a physical, often one-dimensional game-plan, but that does not make it any easier to contain.

What Ireland do have is the ability to cope with a Welsh game-plan better than any other team in this competition, especially in the aerial collisions where Wales rely a lot on their outhalf Dan Biggar's kicking game, and their fast-chasing backline.

Wales's main weakness is in their pack, and more specifically in their tight five, where they still have players with big reputations but who now seem to lack real hunger, not helped by what seems to be disharmony in their camp at times.

On at least a few occasions this season I have witnessed the Welsh players fighting with each other on the park, not in a passionate, 'I want to win at all costs' way'but in a disrespectful one, players clearing not liking each other.

Disharmony will sink teams quicker than anything in sport, and when your players are not playing for each other then they lose that vital edge. Wales' tight five, although definitely strengthened with the addition of prop Samson Lee, still look well past their best.

Veterans like Gethin Jenkins and Alun Wyn Jones are simply not the same players that once dominated with the Lions in Australia. The Welsh back row is both experienced and mobile, with their talismanic captain Sam Warburton citing this game as the "most significant in his career" given he takes over from Ryan Jones as Wales most capped leader.

bludgeon

It's not rocket science for Paul O'Connell and Joe Schmidt to recognise that Wales' main threat is in their massive backline and especially in the centre, where Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies only know one way.

Both Roberts and Davies bludgeon rather than create, but they have been mightily effective over the years. In winger Liam Williams they have an under-rated player who will chase Welsh kicks all day, and both Biggar and fullback Leigh Halfpenny will seek to match Ireland in the air.

An Ireland win will depend on the form and fitness of Sexton, who again holds the key to Ireland's success. Sexton will surely look to put pressure on the Welsh back three by turning the likes of George North (not a great defensive kicker of the ball).

But Sexton will also look to thread the ball into the corners and force Wales to the touchline, knowing that like they did against England, Ireland can put real pressure on Wales's often misfiring lineout.

Robbie Henshaw is Ireland's equivalent to Jamie Roberts but is significantly younger and hungier. At nearly 6 feet 4 inches and well over 100kg, Henshaw has been the championship's find of the season and his defensive displays against France and then England mean that route one may not be quite as easy as Mr Gatland predicted when Ireland lost Brian O'Driscoll.

The problem for Wales is that since the last world cup, they seemed to have abandoned their fast off-loading game for power and physicality, but it is fast catching up with them.

England exposed the fact that Wales do not seem to have a plan B when they took them part in the first game of this year's championship. Ireland's defence has been excellent all year, with fast line speed and deft organisation.

If they can repeat this, as well as keep their discipline against Halfpenny's boot, then in my opinion they have the better balanced side.

Paul O'Connell, playing his 100th game for his country, will know that Wales will be buoyed by the stadium atmosphere but that can also be a hindrance. After the home adrenaline runs dry, as long as Ireland remain calm and execute their superior game-plan, I believe they will win.

I have yet to get a prediction wrong this year and I am going for an Irish win by five points.

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