Ireland v Wales preview: Hosts to bypass potential Six Nations banana skin and keep historic Grand Slam dream alive

Jared Wright
Ireland v Wales Six Nations preview image 2024.jpg

Ireland openside flanker Josh van der Flier and his Wales counterpart Tommy Reffell.

Two sides in completely contrasting form meet in Round Three of the Six Nations as Ireland continue their bid to become the first team ever to claim back-to-back Grand Slams while Wales attempt to avoid their first Wooden Spoon in 21 years.

Andy Farrell’s outfit marched through their opening two matches with little fuss, dispatching Les Bleus in emphatic fashion, racking up their biggest-ever points tally in France, claiming a 38-17 victory. They backed that up with a 36-0 win at the Aviva Stadium as a largely changed side comfortably swept Italy aside.

Meanwhile, it’s been a story of 40-minute performances for Warren Gatland’s men as they fell to both Scotland and England in the opening two weekends. They outscored the Scots four tries to three, but that was not enough to see them avoid a maiden defeat in Cardiff to Gregor Townsend’s side in 22 years after a torrid opening 43 minutes as they leaked 27 points. Against England, they managed to lead 14-5 at half-time but failed to score a single point in the second period as they fell to a 16-14 defeat.

Saturday’s clash at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin is a potential banana skin for Ireland as they front up against a brave young Welsh side desperate to piece together a compelling 80-minute performance, but recent history suggests that it will be one-way traffic for the men in green.

Where the game will be won

Both sides are not shy about holding onto the ball for long periods of time and currently lead the Six Nations in carries, with Ireland making 281 and Wales 260. However, Ireland have gained 431 metres from those carries and Wales 334, indicating just how efficient the former has been in getting over the gain-line. The battle for gain-line superiority is bound to be crucial, but the breakdown will be where the game is won or lost for either side.

While Ireland have been brilliant in getting over the advantage and behind the defence, their attacking structures are built around their brilliance in the rucks. Farrell’s side have managed to generate a ruck speed of between 0-3 seconds 59.17% of the time in the opening two rounds – comfortably the best in the Championship – with 25.23% being between 4-6 seconds and 10.09 over 6 seconds.

Meanwhile, Wales the lowest percentage of rucks between 0-3 seconds (34.43%) and comfortably the highest percentage between 4-6 seconds (42.45%).

If Wales have any hope of causing an upset, they need to stop the Irish attack at source by slowing the ball carriers down and competing hard at the rucks while also disrupting their slick set-pieces as much as possible.

Ireland have been ruthless once they get into the opposition’s 22, so Wales’ defence needs to be at its absolute best and slow the Irish phase play down as much as humanly possible, or they have no chance.

Last time they met

What they said

Ireland head coach Farrell has backed Ciaran Frawley to impress in the full-back jersey after handing him a rare opportunity to start in the Six Nations.

“The versatility that Frawls has got has always probably earmarked him for a bench spot but he’s always been waiting for this chance,” he said.

“Hugo doesn’t get injured too much, does he?

“His skill-set is fantastic and it’s a big week for him so it will be a test of his temperament but he’s playing in a good side and I’m sure he’ll take his chance.”

Wales assistant coach Rob Howley has urged his players to make Ireland as uncomfortable as possible by causing havoc on Saturday.

“The challenge for us is making them as uncomfortable as we can, for every minute that we can do that, and ask different questions of them,” Howley said.

“I think if we can be comfortable in a chaos game and challenge them, because they are very well organised. We need to create chaos. Everyone reacts differently under pressure.

“We have to be able to create pressure on both sides of the ball on Saturday for 80 of those one-minute games. If we can do that, it is 23 against 23 at the end of the day.

“It is our ability to create pressure on both sides of the ball, our ability to be clinical when we need to be. There might only be two or three opportunities, and we have to be clinical and ruthless.

“Against a world-class side that hasn’t been beaten, you have to be on it for 80 of those one-minute games.”

Players to watch

After three tries in two well-rounded and technically sharp matches, Dan Sheehan is on top of his game as he continues to be a cornerstone of the Irish pack. The 25-year-old is on course to break a 110-year-old Championship record if he continues his strike rate of 1.5 tries per game, but outside of his scoring exploits, he is rising to the occasion with action-packed performances on both sides of the ball and accurate set-pieces. If he is not the best hooker in the world right now, he is undoubtedly the best in the Six Nations.

The Irish pack is boosted by the return of Tadhg Beirne, who is bound to have a massive impact in just about every facet of the game. The multi-skilled second-rower was outrageously magnificent against France in an all-action display, scoring a try and winning two lineout steals while making 32 metres from his 10 carries. Ireland’s pack is littered with classy operators, but they are undoubtedly stronger with Beirne back in the starting XV.

Hugo Keenan has started 38 of Ireland’s previous 42 Test matches since his Ireland debut, and on Saturday, he is absent from the matchday squad for just the fifth time. In his place comes Leinster star Ciaran Frawley, who has a massive opportunity to stake his claim for more minutes in the Test jumper. It’s a huge responsibility for the 26-year-old who is renowned for his ability to slot seamlessly into any backline position – except for scrum-half – for his province and will need to replicate that form for his country. A player gifted with a wonderfully vast array of skills, Frawley has the potential to be a superstar in an all-star Ireland backline.

Dafydd Jenkins is setting the bar for Wales as he continues to ooze the class of the Welsh captains that came before him. Not only does he refuse to make excuses and speak superbly after the match, but he does his talking on the field, too, through his actions. He leads the competition in attacking ruck arrivals (68), averages over 10 tackles per game and is Wales’ most-used lineout jumper. He is a fine young talent and it’s clear to see why Gatland has entrusted the 21-year-old with the captaincy.

Aaron Wainwright has been in outstanding form for Wales in the opening two matches despite the results. He was a driving force in their comeback against Scotland and was duly named Player of the Match and backed that up with a standout shift against England. His brilliance has meant that the absence of Taulupe Faletau has barely been felt as he has picked up the baton and sprinted with it.

The Welsh back-three has somewhat flown under the radar this Six Nations mostly due to the results, but the trio of Rio Dyer, Josh Adams and Cameron Winnett have been sublime. While the results haven’t been what fans would have wanted, Dyer and Winnett have risen to the challenge of filling the boots of Louis Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams. In fact, Dyer has made the joint most line breaks in the Championship (4), while Winnett features in the top five for carries, metres carries, and metres gained. They will all need to be on top of their game to nullify the smart Irish kicking game as much as possible but give them a sniff, and they may just be sending Farrell’s men for a breather behind the posts.

Main head-to-head

The young fly-halves, Jack Crowley and Sam Costelow, face off in what is set to be the first edition of a long playmaker rivalry akin to that of Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar. However, we cannot overlook the battle in the number seven jerseys as Josh van der Flier and Tommy Reffell collide.

With the breakdown set to have such a huge bearing on the result of the match, the performance of the two openside flankers will be paramount. Reffell, like Wainwright, has been stupendous for Wales and leads the tournament in breakdown steals won (5). He has also been ferocious on defence and relentless in the rucks, featuring in the top five for attacking (52) and defensive (24) ruck arrivals.

While Caelan Doris tops several of those aforementioned stats for Ireland, his back-row partner has not featured in all 160 minutes of the campaign but will be eager to make the most of his second start after an appearance from the bench last time out. Van der Flier hasn’t quite hit the highs of his 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year campaign, but he is still an outstanding player who is crucial to Ireland’s speedy rucks, whether it be his carries in close outside or his swift and effective clear-outs.

Prediction

The last time Wales managed to knock over Ireland was back in 2021 when they lifted the Six Nations trophy, but since then, it has been one-sided affairs with Farrell’s charges racking up handsome points tallies claiming victories of 22 and 24 points. This Welsh side seems to be finding the real grit and never-say-die attitude of Gatland-led teams of the past but unfortunately, it is not going to be enough this time around. Ireland are comfortable favourites, but Wales will close the gap as the men in green claim a win of 15 points.

Previous results

2023: Ireland won 34-10 in Cardiff
2022: Ireland won 29-7 in Dublin
2021: Wales won 21-16 in Card iff
2020: Ireland won 32-9 in Dublin
2020: Ireland won 24-14 in Dublin
2019: Ireland won 19-10 in Dublin
2019: Ireland won 22-17 in Cardiff
2019: Wales won 25-7 in Cardiff
2018: Ireland won 37-27 in Dublin

The teams

Ireland: 15 Ciaran Frawley, 14 Calvin Nash, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Jack Crowley, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Joe McCarthy, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Oli Jager, 19 James Ryan, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Jack Conan, 22 Conor Murray, 23 Stuart McCloskey

Wales: 15 Cameron Winnett, 14 Josh Adams, 13 George North, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Sam Costelow, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Tommy Reffell, 6 Alex Mann, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Dafydd Jenkins (c), 3 Keiron Assiratti, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Gareth Thomas
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Corey Domachowski, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Mackenzie Martin, 21 Kieran Hardy, 22 Ioan Lloyd, 23 Mason Grady

Date: Saturday, February 24
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Karl Dickson (England), Gianluca Gnecchi (Italy)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)

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