Wales vs Ireland: Familiar foes ready for full-blooded battle that will shape Six Nations

Both sides agree - Cardiff clash of the Celtic nations will be a brutal encounter with no quarter asked or given

If this afternoon’s highly charged battle for Celtic supremacy at the Millennium Stadium delivers anything resembling a surprise, it will come as a serious shock. The Wales players know as much about their Ireland counterparts as the green-shirted visitors know about themselves – not simply because they meet most weeks at Pro 12 level, but because the Lions’ famous victory over the Wallabies in 2013 was a shared experience.

The whole of the back division that forced Australian rugby to don the widow’s weeds on that blissful July night in Sydney will be involved today, as will five members of the starting pack, including the entire back row.

If most neutral observers expect today’s game to be as tight as a tourniquet, so do the active participants. It is for this reason that Ireland, favourites to retain their Six Nations title and two victories away from only the third Grand Slam in their history, have spent the last 13 days focusing their thoughts on where they went wrong in beating England in Dublin, rather than congratulating themselves on where they went right.

“That was a good result for us, but we’ve reminded ourselves that while England are a great side, they didn’t play well against us,” said Paul O’Connell, the 35-year-old captain, who will be making his 100th appearance for his country. “There was a good deal we could have done better in that game. We’ll have to be better this time because Wales are also a great side – a side I expect to produce a great performance.”

O’Connell believes today’s contest will be decided by the small things, not the big ones: a turnover here, a spilled ball there, a missed kick or a fluffed line-out somewhere else. Few people in and around the stadium yesterday were of a mind to disagree, least of all the Wales scrum coach Robbie McBryde, who was as blunt as you like in his appraisal of what will unfold in front of another raucous full house.

“Will we see some open rugby? I’m not so sure about that, because there’s a lot at stake,” said the former Test hooker. “Attacking rugby will come second because that’s the nature of it at the moment. Teams try to wear each other down and sometimes, spectators pay the price.”

In other words, it will be a case of “forget about the ball and get on with the game”.

These matches can be savagely hard: back in 1978, when such heavenly spirits as Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards were in the Wales dressing room at the old Lansdowne Road, one of their less angelic colleagues from the dark depths of the pack let it be known that he didn’t want to see anyone returning to the inner sanctum at the end of the game without blood on his boots. Things are a little less extreme nowadays, but Cardiff will still be out of bounds to those with faint hearts.

 

Happily for both teams, the two open-side flankers are steeped in the ways of the rugby warrior. Sam Warburton, the Wales captain, tends to be at his most influential when everything is on the line, as it will be for a home side who must win to keep alive any realistic hope of relieving their rivals of the title.

“Sam doesn’t say a great deal, but when he does speak it’s relevant, it’s done with conviction and it’s from the heart,” said an admiring McBryde, who, during his own playing days, responded best to the strong, silent type.

The Welsh skipper’s opposite number, the ferociously combative Sean O’Brien, is another who walks the walk at least as well as he talks the talk. This was the case in the decisive act of that Lions tour two years ago, when the Leinsterman replaced the injured Warburton in the breakaway position and subjected the Wallaby loose forwards to the indignities of hell as the tourists romped to a record 41-16 victory.

In footballing terms, it is the Irish back-rowers who hold the aces: both O’Brien and the No 8 Jamie Heaslip, whose rapid recovery from three fractured vertebrae in his back would have made Lazarus rub his eyes in disbelief, can do all manner of fancy, funky things in the handling department. But with Warburton,  Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau in full warpaint, handling may not matter a great deal. Unless, of course, we’re  talking about manhandling.

Much has been made of Ireland’s remarkable habit of winning in Cardiff and there is something genuinely jaw-dropping about the fact that Wales have beaten them only three times on their own patch since 1983. But two of those victories were relatively recent – in 2005 and 2011 – and there was no sign yesterday of O’Connell paying the slightest attention to one of the more peculiar quirks of championship history.

He did, however, reflect on his own international debut – an appearance against Wales in a Six Nations match in 2002, prior to which he found himself rooming with another man of Munster, the darkly aggressive prop Peter Clohessy. “I woke each morning with the smell of cigarettes in my nostrils and remember thinking that this was not the way forward in terms of preparation,” the captain said. “And to be sure, times have changed. But I learned from Peter that each game is a battle. He would train at low intensity because he knew how far he’d have to take himself on the weekend.”

We can expect a battle this afternoon – a furious encounter red in tooth and claw. Both sides are well equipped to withstand the torments: both are powerful in the back five of the scrum, tactically astute, strong in the air and wholly unembarrassed by the narrow confines in which they play so much of their rugby.

Seekers of pure union beauty would do well to steer clear of Cardiff on this occasion, for they are unlikely to find anything of interest there. To lovers of the sport in all its richness, it will be a humdinger.

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