Wales against Ireland – it never ceases to entertain, does it? For the last 10 or 20 years we’ve been fairly evenly matched. Is it because we’re both quite similar – small rugby nations with four regional sides, countries that both have an attacking mentality when it comes to the game?
I don’t know why exactly; it’s difficult to put your finger on it. But it’s usually a classic.
Two years ago we beat them in Dublin; then they got their revenge in Cardiff last year – not to mention the Grand Slam game in 2009, when we lost out, plus our win in that 2011 World Cup quarter-final. The reality is that I’ve had a fair share of winning and losing against Ireland.
That World Cup game was almost perfect from us as a side; it felt like the day we put everything we’d been told into practice. As for two years ago in the Six Nations, I’d not played a massive amount of rugby – I was gasping for air – but it was a great win, a big part of the push for our title win.
I remember that crowd – it’s always great playing in Dublin, with 50,000 screaming at you – and also the try that Jonathan Davies scored, bouncing two players. It was all about skills learnt on the training field and he pulled that off beautifully.
Defensively, this is the biggest challenge of the Six Nations. Ireland love to spread the ball at every opportunity, they score great tries and, like us, they just love to play rugby.
Just look at their back line. Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton are always there getting the team going. I know from the Lions, but also playing with him at Racing Métro, that Jonny’s one of the game’s great thinkers. He’s always thinking about the bigger picture and he’ll certainly be thinking about our downfall.
He’s one of those players who keeps defences on their toes – so too Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, both truly world-class players.
Some have suggested that Brian will have a point to prove on Saturday because of what happened on the Lions tour. I don’t buy that. He’s so experienced and too wise to let that rattle him. I’m sure that left him frustrated for a few weeks but he’s over that now.
I know people would love that to be an additional subplot to this game but I genuinely believe that’s totally forgotten from his point of view. There’s been so much rugby since the Lions tour and his motivation will be more about the fact he’s coming to the end of his career, that this is one of his last chances to shine on the biggest stage.
I’m often asked about Brian and I know him well from two Lions tours. He’s a quality player and a great guy. I learnt a hell of a lot from him on the Lions tour in 2009. I owe him a lot but Scott Williams and I know we need to snuff out the threat he poses.
I’ve watched the Italy game back and we know we have to improve to bring down Ireland. We’ve been slow starters in the Six Nations in the past but a win’s a win and that is the best Italy side I’ve ever played against. Their defence was so tightly organised we struggled to get through.
OK, we made some mistakes. Too often we were spreading the ball wide when perhaps we didn’t deserve to do that. But the all-important thing was that we didn’t buckle.
Warren Gatland made the point after the game that a few years ago if we’d been leading by five points in the dying stages of a match, we would have capitulated. But we didn’t panic, we got ourselves a penalty in a kickable position for Leigh Halfpenny and then it was game won.
Increasingly under Gats there has been this mentality that instead of thinking we can win matches, we now believe it. Now we go to matches fully prepared, having done all our homework and knowing that if we put everything together we will win.
In the aftermath of the Italy game, there were some critics but I actually think we played some good rugby at times, some of it occasionally expansive, and we generally got over the gain line first.
For me personally, it’s hard to describe what it was like being back playing for Wales at the Millennium Stadium in front of 70,000 proud Welshmen. In many ways, the standout moment is when they stop the music halfway through the national anthem and you can just hear the choir and the crowd singing.
It’s so unique. In that one moment you feel the pride of being just one of 1,000 or so Welshmen ever to have experienced that moment on the field of play, that pride and respect of representing your countrymen. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
From a playing point of view, I managed to get my hands on the ball a few times, made a line break for Scott Williams’ try. I was pleased with how it went.
Maybe I went in with a slightly different mentality to the game. Part of that was down to the fact I missed the autumn internationals and it was a case of appreciating what you’ve got once it’s gone. Playing in a Wales shirt meant more than ever. But there was also the factor of me now playing abroad in France, so with a rare moment of playing in Wales I wanted to play really, really well.
I picked up a bit of a dead leg in the match, which was nothing major but meant I had to sit out a training session or two. I’m back and fully fit this weekend.
Looking ahead to the game, first and foremost it’s the battle of the gain line between defence and attack. Isn’t that always the case between Ireland and Wales? It’s a huge game, there will be a passionate crowd and I can’t wait to get out there.
This tournament is all about building momentum. We started with a win, we’re hoping for another. It’s a game too soon for Jonathan Davies so Scott and I remain in the centres, but it’s been great to have Jon in the camp this weekend.
The three of us are rivals for a midfield spot but it is never about individuals, it’s about what’s best for the team and he’s worked hard bouncing ideas off us both this week, pushing us forward for this weekend.
I’ll start the match with No 12 on my back but no doubt, as we did against Italy, Scott and I will chop and change. I don’t want to say too much but I’m sure the big boys, Alex Cuthbert and George North, will come off the wing at times too, to ensure we have that variety in our play.
After one round, the Six Nations hat-trick is still on – that’s what we’re working towards. Do we have a target on our backs as a result? Yes and no. As defending champions we’ll be a target for many, but other teams are targets for us too – not least Ireland.
Mentally and physically, the Irish are about as tough as they come. Hopefully, we can repeat the performance of two years ago and of the World Cup in 2011.