Preview: Wales v Ireland

Date published: March 13 2015

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Ireland face their toughest challenge of the Six Nations to date on Saturday when they take on a resurgent Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

The pressure is well-and-truly on this weekend in Cardiff as at a special venue, Ireland meet a desperate home side looking to stay alive.

Ireland's victory in Rome was followed by home triumphs over France and England, with road trips to Cardiff and Edinburgh now their run-in. Should they complete a clean sweep, their winning streak would be extended to an impressive 12 matches. Perfect World Cup preparation.

Wales meanwhile must still be struggling to fathom how they lost to England in their opening game. But somehow they remain in the shake-up after victories over Scotland and France. In fact, if they win on Saturday, their finale in Italy will become a points chase for the title.

Currently the Welsh are 5 and trailing England 25 and Ireland 40 with two matches to go, so if 2015's tournament does boil down to this scenario, expect drama aplenty on March 21. Therefore, should Wales find themselves in front this weekend and on a confident footing, they simply must kick on whilst finding the right balance of not letting Ireland score cheap points. As we say, things are fascinatingly poised.

The bookmakers have Ireland as slight favourites to continue their excellent run of results this weekend and it would be hard not to agree with that, particularly after that Welsh second-half implosion against England at this very ground. Demons could well resurface for Wales.

And on those February 6 wounds is where Ireland will look to press hard in Paul O'Connell's 100th Test appearance for the Men in Green. The Munster second-row will no doubt give a rousing pre-match talk to his teammates while Sam Warburton and Alun-Wyn Jones do the same, with fireworks expected up front.

Ken Owens is unlucky to miss the cut for this game as he was outstanding against Leinster last weekend. While he trained with Wales, coach Warren Gatland has decided to stick with the winning formula from Paris as Scott Baldwin deserves another run with Richard Hibbard back-up. Elsewhere it's the same XV that beat France, with O'Connell not alone in hitting a milestone as Warburton captains for a record 34th time.

Ireland are boosted by Jamie Heaslip's return from a vertebrae injury, with Jordi Murphy in reserve should he be required. Meanwhile, Jared Payne has recovered from concussion symptoms and will reunite with Robbie Henshaw in midfield outside Jonathan Sexton, who is a key starter.

No doubt Sexton, who was struggling with a hamstring problem, will be tested by clubmate Jamie Roberts throughout, as will their still raw midfield combination of Henshaw and Payne. And Henshaw is under no illusions it will be a difficult outing, possibly their hardest to date.

"Their centre partnership is up there as one of the best in the world. It could definitely be the toughest test for me and Jared," he said.

"They have a physical threat and massive size in that 10, 12 channel from Jamie Roberts, and then a very good ball player and direct runner in Jonathan Davies. It's going to test us big time, so we have got to be prepared and connected in defence, and keep our communication up."

Communication and cool heads amid the noise at the Millennium Stadium will be imperative in those channels and all over the field and it'll be interesting to see whether Wales opt for the same pre-game razzmatazz they did before England. With or without, Wales know that a defeat would mean lights out and leave Ireland one step away from that Grand Slam. All roads would then lead to Murrayfield for a side very much on the rise.

Ones to watch:

For Wales: We are expecting less than one score between these nations at full-time on Saturday and a moment of individual brilliance from either Taulupe Faletau or Rhys Webb could be the decider. Both are in decent form and if Ireland aren't alive to Webb's threat around the ruck area, he will punish them and add to his two scores thus far in the Championship. Leigh Halfpenny's boot will of course have a big say at the Millennium Stadium while he will also need to be his usual steady self under plenty of testers from Ireland.

For Ireland: What a warrior Paul O'Connell has been for Ireland over the years. He actually made his debut against Wales back in 2002 and celebrated his bow with a try in the Dublin victory, something he would be delighted to repeat 13 years on this Saturday. Of course he would swap a try out for the win in Cardiff as the inspirational leader continues to leave us hanging on when he will hang up his boots. Behind him is the returning Jamie Heaslip, who will have all eyes on how he fares early on following that nasty back injury.

Head-to-head: Two of the form fly-halves in world rugby clash in Cardiff as Dan Biggar and Jonathan Sexton line up for what should be an absorbing battle. If the British and Irish Lions squad was named tomorrow, these two would be on the plane after excellent seasons. Biggar has gone up another level at the Ospreys, who have Sam Davies progressing nicely, while Sexton has earned a big-game player tag after his showings in 2013 and for his country in recent years. It should be a cracking contest that could shape where this result goes.

Recent results:

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
2009: Ireland won 17-15 in Cardiff

Prediction: It's hard not to ignore their run of form as the visitors continue to grow as a team. If they are in the mix around the hour mark then you'd have to back them to finish the job. Ireland by 3!

The teams:

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams.

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones.

Date: Saturday, March 14
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Graham Hughes

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