Murray Kinsella reports from Cardiff
ONE THING WE can be certain of before tonight’s game in Cardiff is that Ireland and Wales are going to limp off the pitch.
Test rugby is no place for those who cannot stand up to huge physical tolls, but this contest has moved up a gear in recent times.
Tommy O’Donnell lifts Peter O’Mahony during yesterday’s captain’s run. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
In 2015, at what was then the Millennium Stadium, Joe Schmidt’s side battered and battered the Welsh defence, forcing them to make an eye-watering 250 tackles but ultimately leaving with their tails between their legs before recovering to win the championship.
Last year in Dublin, the ball-in-play time was a deeply fatiguing 42 minutes and 53 seconds, more than three minutes greater than the next highest time in the championship.
Two different types of games, both pushing the players close to their physical limits.
In front of a boozed-up and demanding crowd in the renamed Principality Stadium tonight [KO 8.05pm], it would be a major surprise if this contest didn’t provide something similar.
Wales are fighting to salvage pride after consecutive defeats to England and Scotland, while Ireland are still in the hunt for a Six Nations title, this game essentially serving as a semi-final.
In the sweaty atmosphere a closed roof in Cardiff ensures, the pressure is very real.
“Within the next 36 hours, we will find out a lot,” said Ireland captain Rory Best yesterday. “To come to a place like this and perform in an intense atmosphere will be a big statement of where we are.
“And a big statement of where the squad is, because it is going to take a 23-man effort.
“The last quarter of the game, you would imagine, is going to be finely balanced and it is going to take the bench coming on that is going to be a mark of where this Irish squad is.
Brendan Guinan, Alan Ryan, Declan Doogan, Paul Hensey and James Hibbitts from Offaly in Cardiff. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“Whatever about November – bar the Chicago game – and then the France game [two weekends ago], they were all at home.
“If you look at results historically, it is perceived to be easier to play at home. This will be a big statement of where we are as a squad and how mentally tough we are.”
The two most recent ties against Wales have taught Ireland harsh lessons. In 2015, a dire start saw them give up 12 cheap points and face a major uphill battle before they had even got going.
“It takes a monumental effort to switch that momentum, so that is a big lesson for us – the easiest way to have to switch momentum is for you to get momentum at the start,” said Best. “The easiest time to get momentum on your side is at the start of the game.”
But last year, however, Ireland were 13-0 up on the Welsh after 28 minutes in Dublin and managed to allow the visitors back into the game to secure a 16-16 draw.
“We were not mentally as strong as we needed to be,” said Best. “That was the big lesson – in that you have to keep going.”
The point, really, is that there is no perfect formula here. There are many ways to win and lose a game of rugby, although the low Welsh confidence would strongly suggest that a big start from Ireland this evening can go a long way towards ensuring victory.
The Welsh are wounded, but there is danger in that for Ireland too. Interestingly, Rob Howley and his coaching staff have stuck with exactly the same matchday 23 that lost to Scotland last time out, keen for their players to reward the faith that has been shown.