Mind-games continue as Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland preview the Ireland v Wales 6 Nations opener after Rugby World Cup misery (Kick-off Sunday 3pm).
Finally, the Wales are favourites. No, I think Ireland are favourites is done. From last year’s victorious team, Warren Gatland is probably most anxious about how Gareth Anscombe will shoulder the burden of replacing Leigh Halfpenny at full-back. While Tom James and Gareth Davies come in, it’s the loss of Halfpenny that will hurt them most.
Wales were able to handle the loss through injury of about 10 players at the Rugby World Cup, while Ireland struggled when their linchpin were taken from them. Warren Gatland’s “limited” comment about Ireland’s game is still a valid question, but as the Welsh coach stated, it has served them well (up until the World Cup anyway).
Joe Schmidt’s status certainly took a hit during the World Cup. It’s now time that to see him evolve his playing style. Then again, if Ireland win by lumping the ball in the air, nobody will notice. Winning is king after all.
Former New Zealand coach Graham Henry once said he wanted to get two players in each position. If Ireland looked at that, they may avoid what happened at the last World Cup. CJ Stander was given a chance due to Sean O’Brien’s injury.
It’s disappointing that the likes of Stuart McCloskey and Garry Ringrose, exciting talents, won’t get a chance (yet). For the most part, for some reason it takes injuries to give youth a chance in Irish rugby. It is often said that if a player is good enough, age isn’t a factor. Ringrose and McCloskey, Josh van der Flier and others have shown their talents on the European stage. Surely building for the next World Cup starts now. Hopefully at the end of the 6 Nations, we will have seen a few more faces given a chance.
Head Coach Talk:
“CJ (Stander) has been fitting in really well. He is certainly a committed character… we felt it would be a good mix for us in the absence of Sean O’Brien. If the same thing happened [with Sean O’Brien] as happened against Italy last year, where he pulled out late and was replaced by Tommy (O’Donnell), it was unsettling. We expect that they will kick on him (Simon Zebo) a lot. He’s very good in the air and, like Rob (Kearney), he’s got that good left boot on him.”
“We looked hard at the Stuart McCloskey-Luke Marshall combination as a second (option)… but the two guys did well against Wales last year. Jared (Payne) made a lot of metres and Robbie was one of our go-to players.”
“In the past, people have made comments about the Irish game-plan being limited, but it’s been incredibly effective. It’s hard as a coach when you’ve got something that’s working for you and you are winning lots of games by playing that way and being incredibly successful to go away from that. Joe has been fairly tight in the way he has played the game, but you saw when he was with Leinster the way that game developed over a period. I am sure the same will happen with Ireland and they will play a lot more expansively and look to catch teams out.”
Key Duel: Dan Biggar v Jonathan Sexton
The likely event is that a big onus will be on the kickers to take their chances. In last year’s game in Cardiff, Leigh Halfpenny kicked five penalties (missed a conversion) and Biggar added a drop goal. Sexton added a conversion and three of four penalties. Biggar stood up and was counted at the World Cup and Ireland capitulated without Sexton, mainly due to the lack of game-time Ian Madigan received at out-half for club and country. A bad miss could decide this one, but both are up for the challenge and shouldn’t flinch.
Team News & lineups:
Who is suffering more. Ireland lost Rob Kearney, but with Simon Zebo moving to full-back should have enough to combat the threat of Gareth Anscombe. The Kiwi hasn’t had enough time at international level and could be a deciding factor. He could step up and fill Halfpenny’s threatening boots or he could falter. The other question mark hovers over Tom James on the left wing, making a comeback after not making an appearance since 2010. With Sean O’Brien out and Peter O’Mahony a long-term absentee, the backrow confrontation between Warburton, Tipuric and Falteau and Stander, O’Donnell and Heaslip will be fascinating.
Are Ireland suffering through their injury list or could it shine even brighter than previous. Rob Kearney hadn’t excelled at full-back for some time and although Payne would certainly exploit the Anscombe better, Zebo should have the measure of him. Trimble is back after being excluded from the World Cup squad and will relish the challenge to show what Ireland missed out on during the World Cup. The disappointing aspect for Ireland is that injury aside, Schmidt doesn’t look like making a change or giving youth a chance.
15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray.
1 Jack McGrath, 2 Rory Best, 3 Nathan White, 4 Devin Toner, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 CJ Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 8 Jamie Heaslip.
16 Sean Cronin, 17 James Cronin, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 David kearney.
15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies.
1 Rob Evans, 2 Scott Baldwin, 3 Samson Lee, 4 Luke Charteris, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 6 Sam Warburton, 7 Justin Tipuric, 8 Taulupe Falteau.
16 Ken Owens, Gethin Jenkins, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Dan Lydia, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Priestland, Alex Cuthbert.