Wales are 80 minutes away from Grand Slam glory but face a stern final test of their credentials when they clash with Ireland on Saturday.
To date it hasn’t been a clean sweep filled with free-scoring and attacking quality but that is not the Welsh way right now and anyone who argues they are not a serious contender for Rugby World Cup glory are wrong. As former England captain Lewis Moody said earlier this week, “a streak of some 13 winning games doesn’t happen by accident”. We couldn’t agree more but being talked down by some won’t worry the Welsh.
Despite their run of results, Warren Gatland’s side are still fifth favourites to lift the Webb Ellis trophy with many bookmakers but that would surely change if they could go five from five in the Six Nations and add Ireland to their growing list of scalps in this hot streak.
Defensively they are outstanding and it would not surprise us if tries were not forthcoming at the Principality Stadium this weekend, with the pressure of silverware and Ireland arriving also looking to send off their head coach from Six Nations action with a win of any style.
Indeed Wales have scored just 89 points in their four games with Ireland notching up 94. Wales have also yet to post a bonus point in 2019 which illustrates the above points in that their streetwise and suffocating recent showings have not been flashy but are so very effective.
Alun Wyn Jones has of course been the talisman for these performances and it’s unthinkable for Wales if he were absent. At 33 years of age he has been rolling back the years, and alongside the likes of Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Hadleigh Parkes and Liam Williams, they were the foundations upon which the Welsh edged Scotland seven days ago. To a man though once again every player in the 23 must fire this Saturday.
Raising their game won’t be difficult in front of a passionate Cardiff crowd and the atmosphere is set to be electric as the Irish look to spoil the party. Joe Schmidt’s charges have been improving of late and cannot be underestimated, especially with the pressure not on them.
The Irish do seem to be on an upward curve after that France performance and with their team-sheet filled with quality, it only heightens the possible achievements of Wales if they were to come out on top. Cardiff is waiting, Twickenham will be watching; roll on this epic fixture.
Players to watch:
For Wales: On such occasions, cool heads are a must and where more so than at fly-half. Gareth Anscombe appears to have nailed down the number 10 jersey and can further cement himself in the spot with a calm performance on Saturday. Good off the tee and with also a smart kicking and strong defensive game, Wales will need him to direct the ship and then late on it’ll be the turn of Dan Biggar to bring it home.
For Ireland: Former Scarlets star Tadhg Beirne gets the nod to start at lock for Ireland and could well have a big say in how things play out. Such a ball of energy who boasts all the qualities a coach would want from a second or back-row, Beirne’s set to be a nuisance at the breakdown and also carry throughout, which Wales need to contain as much as possible. There should be genuine concern about his threat.
Head-to-head: The recovery of Liam Williams is a massive boost for Wales in such a vital match while Ireland are also buoyed by Rob Kearney‘s comeback at 15. Both are aerially sound and will also be keen to impose their attacking game on proceedings in Cardiff. One can’t help but feel whichever of them dominates will go a long way to determining which side comes out on top. Two British & Irish Lions collide.
2018: Ireland won 37-27 in Dublin 2017: Wales won 22-9 in Cardiff 2016: 16-16 draw in Dublin 2015: Wales won 16-10 in Dublin 2015: Ireland won 35-21 in Cardiff 2015: Wales won 23-16 in Cardiff 2014: Ireland won 26-3 in Dublin 2013: Ireland won 30-22 in Cardiff
Prediction: With pressure and Ireland arriving confident, it is a tough one to call at the Principality Stadium. But the hosts have consistently proven their doubters wrong so we’re not going to back against them bucking that trend. Wales win by two for the Grand Slam!
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Jordan Larmour
Date: Saturday, March 16 Venue: Principality Stadium Kick-off: 14:45 GMT Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia) Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Karl Dickson (England) TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
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