By Ellie Caddick @caddicksport @TLE_Sport
This time last week most of us were sure that Ireland v England was going to be the game of the championship. The clash would see the two favourites for the championship go head-to-head and whoever could emerge victorious would be on track for the Grand Slam.
Just 24 hours earlier Wales would travel to Paris for what looked like the battle for third place. Would France turn up? Would Wales be able to perform in the second half?
It’s funny what a difference a week makes.
In a weekend full of unexpected events, it’s fair to say that Ireland pushed England to one side. The men in green controlled the game from the first whistle and steered the English chariot off course with a decisive 19-9 victory.
In a reverse of fortunes with England, Wales commanded their game against France for the whole 80 minutes. Their performance was far from the finished article but it did serve as a reminder that the fire of the Welsh dragon is far from being extinguished.
Tomorrow Ireland will fight to keep their Grand Slam hopes alive whilst Wales could put themselves in with a chance, albeit slim, of getting their hands on the Six Nations trophy.
Wales have made no changes to the side that triumphed over Les Bleus in Paris. They say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! Can we expect the same from Ireland? Jamie Heaslip, returning from a concussion injury, is the only change to the team that schooled England two weeks ago. Why change a winning formula?
The focus of this game will be on the captains. Paul O’Connell wins his 100th cap for Ireland and Sam Warburton will become a record holder, captaining Wales for a 34th time.
So where will this game be won and lost? Let’s see how the two teams match up.
Gethin Jenkins worked well with Lydiate on an effective choke tackle, something Wales can expect to come up against this weekend. An absolute stalwart of the Welsh team and hard to fault. Samson Lee put in a steady performance helping Wales to assert their authority at the scrum. He showed that Wales can rest assured that they have a worthy replacement for Adam Jones. Hooker Scott Baldwin has proven that he is a more than adequate replacement for Richard Hibbard. Perhaps the most surprising inclusion in this week’s game but with 100% lineout success (yes, you read that right) against France it’s hard to argue with Gatland’s choice. 8/10
25 year-old Jack McGrath did well in performing his duties alongside his fellow, more experienced forwards. He keeps his place ahead of the more experienced Cian Healy. Fellow prop Mike Ross was solid against England. Expect more of the same tomorrow. Hooker Rory Best proved how he has managed to rack up more than 80 caps for his country. Hard work at the breakdown saw him win a turnover against the English – the highlight of an excellent performance. 8/10
There was more talk about the length of Luke Charteris’ arms before the France game than the man himself but they proved a useful tool in the lineout and turning over possession. Hard to fault. We’ve come to expect brilliant performances from Alun Wyn Jones and he didn’t disappoint. A born leader. 9/10
Irish legend Paul O’Connell put in some good tackles against England and looked like setting up a try when he charged down Ben Youngs’ kick but his second row frame and pace meant he couldn’t make anything of it. England’s first real chance at threatening Ireland’s defensive line was snuffed out when Devin Toner stole the lineout on the 5m line. He was involved at the breakdown throughout the game. 8/10
That pass from Dan Lydiate allowed Dan Biggar to go over for the try against France. Sheer brilliance. Sam Warburton’s role as captain has seemed quiet in recent games and who can blame him? He is so involved at the breakdown, working to win the turnovers and clear out the ruck, that his role is lost. He made 6 tackles against the French. Number 8 Taulupe Faletau punched many a hole in the French defence. He completed the highest number of tackles by a Welshman and is undoubtedly an irreplaceable player in the national team set-up. 7/10
Jordi Murphy did a good job as Jamie Heaslip’s replacement but the big Irish number 8 returns for this key fixture. The men in green will need his ball carrying skills. Sean O’Brien only lasted 25 minutes before going off through injury against England. Although he wasn’t given much chance to get going, it was a fairly uninspiring few minutes. In contrast, talk about putting in a shift! Peter O’Mahoney got a bit carried away at times conceding four penalties but he did a lot of the hard work in the lead up to Henshaw’s try. 7/10
Rhys Webb likes to stand over the ball looking left and looking right before making a decision. Often when he does play quick ball he tries to catch defenders napping at the ruck, get over the gain line himself. His partner in crime Dan Biggar is really taking hold of his position and makes Rhys Priestland’s inclusion seem like a distant memory. He looks like a man in control and is becoming increasingly reliable. 8/10
Conor Murray is very quick at getting the ball out at the breakdown. Rarely do you hear a referee prompting him to ‘use it’. He always seems aware of where his players are and knows exactly who he is going to pass to. Fly-half Jonathan Sexton has caused a rollercoaster of emotions in Wales. First he limps off with a hamstring injury and then leaves us all waiting for over a week to announce he is fit for the Celtic clash. The tempo of the England match changed when he left the pitch. His role is so pivotal to the Irish game and he is arguably the best player in the northern hemisphere right now. 9/10
Jonathan Davies is really making metres for Wales and likes to kick into open play. Nothing ground breaking but alongside Roberts the duo showed that playing in France has its advantages. Roberts himself is playing some of the best rugby of his career. The Welsh side is unimaginable without him and if Wales are able to keep up their line out success he will be a battering ram into the Irish defence. 8/10
Robbie Henshaw was the undeniable man of the match against England. He displayed fantastic composure to score from Murray’s speculative box kick and was the top tackler of his side. He won two turnovers overs but missed six tackles. Jared Payne can count his Ireland caps on the fingers of one hand but his inexperience didn’t seem to hinder him against England. A quiet, understated performance but he tackled well. 8/10
Liam Williams was fantastic defensively against the French. He has carried his ability to read the game from club to country and it’s hard to imagine that he won’t play a big role in the future of Welsh rugby. George North made more metres against France than the pair of Irish wings combined. The Northampton Saint reminded us of his brilliance with a few great breaks but the Welsh tactics are yet to provide him with the opportunities he relishes. 8/10
It would be safe to assume that Wales won’t be mirroring England’s bizarre tactic of kicking towards Simon Zebo at the restart. The Munsterman caught with confidence but was given few chances to do much else. He is a dangerous runner. His fellow wing Tommy Bowe’s performance can only be described as ineffective. Ireland’s game plan starved him of the ball. Has a happy knack of scoring tries though. 6/10.
Leigh Halfpenny can never be accused of lacking in vigour. With a trusty pair of boots and nerves of steel he was unaffected by disrespectful French booing two weeks ago. A characteristic high-class performance. 8/10
Rob Kearney’s performance against England hardly set the world alight. Whilst he showed that he’s a safe pair of hands, he will have to up his game in order to compete against the passion and ability of his Welsh counterpart. 7/10
Where the game will be won and lost
This fly-half battle isn’t about slotting the ball between the posts but a measure of composure when it comes to decision making: when to kick into open space (if there is any), when to kick for touch and when to opt for the drop goal.
Joe Schmidt has identified the strength Wales have in their half back pairing. Biggar and Webb are working well together and there’s no doubt that they read each other’s games because of their experience playing with the Ospreys but let’s be honest, Murray and Sexton are a world class pairing.
Together they are improving the reputation of the ever-increasing amount of kicking in the game. Their ability to read the game and place the ball into space or the hands of a chasing player is unrivalled in this competition.
Ireland will not give Webb the time afforded to him by France. In order for Wales to succeed in getting their wings over the try line Webb will have to play much quicker ball. More of the same is all Murray needs in order to dominate this scrum half match-up.
Wales rack up 56/70 against Ireland’s 53/70 so there’s little between the two teams. These scores are more of a reflection on the game plans of the two nations than the ability of the individual players. Given Wales’ impressive defensive display against France, Ireland will need to be more inventive and put the ball in the hands of Bowe and Zebo in order to get over the whitewash.
Everyone loves the final weekend of the Six Nations, and Super Saturday is all the more super when it all comes down to points difference. If Wales can win this crucial match they blow the competition wide open forcing everyone to get their calculators out. If Schmidt’s men can win a record eleventh game in a row then only Scotland stand between them and their first ever back-to-back Six Nations titles and another Grand Slam.
Ellie is a sports writer and blogger based in Wales. Follow her on twitter @caddicksport