O’Connell To Inspire Ireland To Glory
Wales v Ireland
Ireland travel to Cardiff on the second-last leg of a potential Grand Slam. Can Joe Schmidt’s side conquer the Welsh dragons?
After the shock of losing their opening 6 Nations encounter against a weakened England side, Wales recovered from that disappointment with a much improved display to beat Scotland in Edinburgh and then put in a thoroughly professional performance in Paris, containing France to run out 20-13 winners. That victory kept their title hopes alive and with a game against Italy to come, victory over Ireland would put them in pole position.
After a clean sweep in their autumn internationals, Ireland weren’t always at their best in their opening two 6 Nations games, having to work hard to overcome a stubborn Italian defence in Rome, and then earning a bruising victory over France. But they never looked like losing either game, and they were equally comfortable against England, out-kicking and out-thinking the visitors to keep their perfect record going.
Injuries to prop Paul James and second row Bradley Davies mean Scarlets pair Rob Evans and Jake Ball have been called up into the Wales squad. But coach Warren Gatland hasn’t made any changes to the starting line-up and that means captain Sam Warburton will lead Wales for the 34th time, breaking a record held by Ryan Jones.
Ireland had a number of injury doubts at the weekend, but Jamie Heaslip has recovered from three fractured vertebrae in his back, Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne have both proved their fitness after suffering concussion, and crucially, Johnny Sexton is fit again after a hamstring injury, which means coach Joe Schmidt has a full squad to choose from.
Head to Head
Although Wales have won three of their last five games against Ireland, it is the Irish who have the better recent record in this fixture. They’ve won eleven of the seventeen matches during the 6 Nations era, including a surprise 30-22 victory at the Millennium Stadium in 2013 and last year’s 26-3 rout at Lansdowne Road.
Ireland’s record at the Millennium Stadium is extraordinary. They’ve won five of their seven matches, although their average margin of victory in those seven games is just four.
It is also worth noting that Ireland tend to be strong starters in this fixture. In their last ten meetings with Wales, they have led at half-time in eight of them.
In their opening match, Wales didn’t look anything like title contenders, but two battling performances since then have brought them back into contention and they will fancy their chances of beating Ireland in front of a passionate home crowd.
But in recent months, Ireland have become genuine World Cup contenders and right now are the best side in the northern hemisphere. They can match Wales in every department and I think Joe Schmidt will out-do his opposite number this weekend. It will be a close game, but the visitors should have the edge. Back Ireland -2 at 10/11 in the Match Handicap market.