Ireland arrive in Cardiff to face Wales knowing that a win would take them top of the Six Nations, putting the pressure on England.
Currently three points behind Eddie Jones’ side with two games to play, Ireland know a loss could see England seal the title on Saturday.
An in-form Scotland may still have something to say about though and the neutral will hope the Championship does go down to its final round. Indeed, Vern Cotter’s men could still lift the silverware if Wales beat Ireland and they win at Twickenham before beating Italy next week.
For Wales the prospects are far more bleak after a dismal campaign that has seen them win one and lose two of their matches to date. After this tough game against Ireland at the Principality Stadium, they conclude their tournament with another difficult assignment in France.
The bookmakers have them slight underdogs on Friday and one would expect something similar in Paris next week, which begs the question will Wales finish with just one win to their name on the back of four straight defeats? If so, the pressure would be immense on Rob Howley.
Howley will have been watching on with dismay as his charges crumbled during the second-half at Murrayfield and anything like that performance in front of their fans will see them lose again. It had all looked so promising at half-time though, so replicating that start will be crucial.
Playing a night game at their home ground always adds to the atmosphere in Cardiff and Howley will also hope that lifts his men to turn their fortunes around. But Ireland have decent form at this ground in recent visits, winning two of their last three trips, so will arrive with confidence.
Jonathan Sexton’s return was a significant lift against France and justified Joe Schmidt’s bold decision to drop Paddy Jackson. Sexton’s showing alongside Conor Murray reaffirmed his standing as Ireland’s lead playmaker and again the duo’s performance will be vital in Cardiff.
So many battles intrigue, not least the back-row where a mobile Welsh trio takes on CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien’s brute power and Jamie Heaslip’s subtle touches. All six of those players are pushing for Lions honours and that just adds something extra to this exciting fixture.
While Ireland’s unchanged side was met with a nod of expectance the same couldn’t be said of Howley’s decision to stick with his XV. Many called for changes after Murrayfield – and due to them being out of the running for the title – but players have been given another chance.
“I know things have been said in the week about some players’ performance. But as a coaching team, we have talked about the opportunity just to go out again,” said Howley, whose men are still battling for World Ranking points before the RWC 2019 draw. “There is an opportunity to go out at home in front of our supporters and deliver a performance the players are proud of and for the supporters to support that.”
“It will be a huge game on Friday night,” he added, with pride very much on the line for Wales while Ireland will hope to twist the knife with a win that would give them great confidence of wrestling the title off England next weekend, the showdown many were hoping for pre-tournament.
Players to watch:
For Wales: With the British and Irish Lions squad announcement approaching, chances are running out for players to stake a claim to be on the plane to New Zealand. One man having an outside shot of being the third tighthead prop on board is Tomas Francis, who again starts ahead of Samson Lee. Tadhg Furlong and Dan Cole are expected to make the trip, leaving one spot open as Zander Fagerson also pushes hard. WP Nel’s return date is unknown so Friday is another huge opportunity for Francis to make a point to the Lions selectors.
For Ireland: As mentioned already, his performance on his return to the line-up last week was outstanding and again Jonathan Sexton is vital to Ireland’s hopes of victory. Going up against Dan Biggar is an exciting duel and one both these playmakers will relish, with neither taking a backward step. The drive Sexton gives his side is often understated and he’ll no doubt be rallying his team before and during this fixture.
Head-to-head: Another intriguing battle comes at scrum-half where most probably the two front-runners for the British and Irish Lions nine jersey go toe-to-toe. Rhys Webb was unlucky not to score last weekend and is a constant threat around the fringes while Conor Murray has been consistently superb this Six Nations, ticking every box a boss wants from his scrum-half. Their tussle may well be pivotal 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
2012: Wales won 23-21 in Dublin
2011: Wales won 22-10 in Wellington
2011: Wales won 19-13 in Cardiff
2010: Ireland won 27-12 in Dublin
Prediction: It could well be a cracker in Cardiff and one which Wales may just come up short against powerful visitors. Ireland by six.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Tommy Bowe
Date: Friday, March 10
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 20:00 GMT
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)