Six Nations 2015: Wales vs Ireland Preview

Everything you need to know ahead of the "Grand Slam semi-final" as Ireland look to make history with 11th consecutive Test win

By Gareth Llewellyn

Kick-off and TV/Radio coverage

Saturday 14 March 2015, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Kick-off 14:30 GMT. Live TV coverage on BBC 1 and S4C across the UK, RTÉ in Ireland. Live radio coverage on BBC 5 Live and RTÉ radio.

Who’s the man with the whistle?

Gloucester-born Wayne Barnes is spared a trip to Rome, where he should have been an assistant referee for the Italy vs France contest to take charge of his second Six Nations match this season after Steve Walsh withdrew due to “business commitments”.

Barnes, who took also took charge of the reverse fixture in 2014, is supported by France’s Pascal Gauzere and Argentina’s Federico Anselmi.

England’s Graham Hughes is in the hot seat as TMO and one would fancy he may be called on a few times.

What’s the team news?

Wales: Warren Gatland has named an unchanged team for this one, so Liam Williams and George North provide the wide threat with Leigh Halfpenny mopping up behind them at full-back.

The Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb show continues at half-back with the familiar marauding sight of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in midfield.

Up front, Gatland goes for tries and tested in the back row as captain Sam Warburton is joined by fellow flanker Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau at number eight.

Luke Charteris, and his go go Gadget arms, is kept in the engine room alongside Alun Wyn Jones, who has been one of Wales’ stand-out players so far in this year’s championship.

It’s old and young for the props as Gethin Jenkins and Samson Lee pack down either side of Scott Baldwin, who keeps his place after a solid shift last time out.

There is also a familiar touch to the bench with a solitary change as Jake Ball returns in place of the injured Bradley Davies.

Ireland: There were also no surprises from Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt as Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip returns to number eight in place of club team-mate Jordi Murphy, who drops to the bench.

Ireland’s premier half-back pairing Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will be tasked with orchestrating the attack with potent back three Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo providing plenty of aerial threat.

Ulster centre Jared Payne came through his return-to-play protocols after concussion so takes his place at inside centre alongside Robbie Henshaw.

Up front, it is as you were in the front row as Leinster props Jack McGrath and Mike Ross pack down either side of Rory Best.

Paul O’Connell will provide leadership from the engine room alongside Devin Toner, with Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien joining Heaslip in the back row.

What are the line-ups?

Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon); George North (Northampton Saints), Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne), Jamie Roberts (Racing Métro), Liam Williams (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Webb (Ospreys); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Luke Charteris (Racing Métro), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, captain), Taulupe Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).

Replacements: Richard Hibbard (Gloucester), Rob Evans (Scarlets), Aaron Jarvis (Ospreys), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys); Mike Phillips (Racing Métro), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Scott Williams (Scarlets).

Ireland: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Ulster), Jared Payne (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Simon Zebo (Munster); Johnny Sexton (Racing Metro), Conor Murray (Munster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster), Mike Ross (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Paul O’Connell (Munster, captain), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Sean O’Brien (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: Sean Cronin (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Martin Moore (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jordi Murphy (Leinster); Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Ian Madigan (Leinster), Felix Jones (Munster).

Who are the players to watch this week?

Wales: With so much riding on the match there are monumental match-ups everywhere. Most of the contenders are obvious: half-back pairing Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb, back three Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and George North, but while much of the talk has been about unlocking defences through aerial battles and potent linebreakers, the game could well be won up front and the tight five for Wales are crucial. Veteran Gethin Jenkins on the loosehead occasionally gets on the wrong side of referees, which often leads to penalties and even yellow cards against. He has grown into the campaign and needs to get on top of opposite number Mike Ross quickly and dominate him at the scrum. If he can do that, even if he contributes little in the loose, it will give Wales a platform from which to get the scoreboard ticking over in the opposition half through Leigh Halfpenny and allow them to keep Ireland away from the Wales tryline. referee Wayne Barnes has already refereed Ireland vs France and seen the Irish front row at close quarters. Winning the scrum battle could be invaluable for a Wales win.

Ireland: Like Wales, the Ireland giants spring from the teamsheet. Messrs Sexton, Murray, O’Connell, Kearney and Bowe would all feature highly as danger men to watch out for. Two unsung heroes for Ireland are key for this one. Hooker Rory Best getting his arrows right to set up one of Ireland’s most potent weapons: the driving maul. Easier said than done, even with two lineout giants in Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner as principal targets, because in Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris Wales have a couple of experienced heads with very long arm reach. Toner is the other man who can have as much impact attacking and defending lineouts as he can disrupting any lineout drives from Wales. If the wide-out and Garryowen methods fail and it becomes an arm wrestle, the lock becomes a very useful outlet for Ireland. Sometimes underrated in the loose, there are few better engines in the Six Nations than that powering the Leinsterman’s rumbles up field.

What do the teams make of this match?

Wales head coach, Warren Gatland: “It’s massive for us because if we win on Saturday we are still in the competition going away to Italy.

“It’s going to be tough on Italy, playing France on the Sunday. They will only have a six day turnaround, so they’ve potentially got to make the most of that match.

“But it’s one game at a time, and we’ve got to make sure we are mentally right for Saturday.”

Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt: “We have an opportunity to do what no Irish team has done in the history of the game – the danger is being distracted by that.

This run we’re on has a kind of exponential character to it. You get one big win, as we did against England, and the next one does become a little bit bigger again, especially because it’s an away game.

It’s an opportunity to continue in front in the Championship and keep control of our own destiny.”

What happened last time they met?

Ireland were comprehensive 26-3 winners over Wales in the opening match of the 2014 campaign in Dublin.

How did they get on last time out?

Wales: Warren Gatland celebrated his first victory with Wales in Ireland as his side held on to win 20-13 at the Stade de France with Leigh Halfpenny laying on plenty of points either side of Dan Biggar going over for his first Wales try.

Ireland: Joe Schmidt’s men produced a stunning performance to defeat England 19-9 at the Aviva Stadium on 1 March with Johnny Sexton keeping the scoreboard ticking over before Connacht centre Robbie Henshaw scored his first international try.

Anything I may have missed?

There have been 120 contests between the two countries. Wales have won 65, Ireland have won 49, with the last of six draws coming at Cardiff Arms Park in 1991.

Six points from Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton in his sixth outing against Wales would see him replace David Humphreys (57 from six appearances) as the third highest points scorer in this contest, although he would need a points-heavy performance to get close to Stephen Jones (107 from 11) and Ronan O’Gara (95 from 13).

Ireland captain Paul O’Connell also celebrates two major milestones as he joins the likes of Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll in playing 100 Test matches for Ireland. He also becomes the fourth Irishman to make 50 Six Nations appearances.

Cardiff Blues flanker Sam Warburton will break Ryan Jones’ record for number of appearances as Wales captain when he leads out his country for the 34th time.

Ireland’s impressive record in Cardiff has seen them win on five of their seven visits to the Millennium Stadium, with the last time they failed to score a try in the Welsh capital coming in 1983.

Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones tops the lineout charts with 15 wins so far, but he will have his work cut out going up against British and Irish Lions colleague Paul O’Connell.

Ireland will have to stay on top of their discipline with Wales boasting the tournament’s top points scorer this season in full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who has banged over 39 points in the first three rounds.

What do the bookies make of the match?

Given their barnstorming run of form that goes back to their defeat to England at Twickenham last year, and their impressive winning record in Cardiff, Ireland are odds-on favourites to make it 11 on the bounce.

Our man Paddy Power is offering Wales at 6/5, Ireland at 4/5, the draw at 18/1.

Odds stated are correct at time of publication and subject to change.

Prediction

The form and recent history all points to another win for the green machine, and it will require a perfect game plan from Wales to stop that, much like their 2013 win over England. Such feats are rare, if not impossible, but Ireland should have enough to win by a score.

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