When Ireland host Wales at the Aviva Stadium, it will be a clash between two teams who could not be in more different settings, both on and off the field.
Andy Farrell’s Ireland may not have made it past last year’s World Cup quarter-finals, but they have won 17 consecutive home games and are on course for back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slam titles.
Wales, on the other hand, have problems on and off the field. As Irish rugby quietly navigates calm waters, Wales coach Warren Gatland admitted this week that the current state of the country’s national game is like “plugging up the holes in a sinking ship”.
Gatland also cast doubt on whether Welsh rugby would undergo what he considers a “proper reset” needed at a regional level.
In the boardroom, the Welsh Rugby Union continues to grapple with the fallout from last year’s sexism and misogyny scandal. On the sporting level, Gatland is starting again with a young team.
Warren Gatland’s team comes into the clash after two defeats in the Six Nations
Ireland extended their magnificent home winning streak to 17 games with a 36-0 thrashing of Italy.
Wales center Nick Tompkins dismissed any suggestion that Wales are afraid of the task ahead.
He has had no other option. After defeats to Scotland and England by a combined total of just three points, Ireland are the toughest challenge yet for Wales’ rookie class of 2024.
‘I don’t know about bullying. It’s a good test, but intimidating makes it seem like we’re afraid. They were not. “We are excited,” said Wales and Saracens center Nick Tompkins.
“Realistically, we have nothing to lose.” Wales may not be scared and are taking on the ultimate challenge, but it would still be a big surprise if the result was anything more than a home win.
Still, Gatland is positive about what his youngsters can achieve. Wales will look to give Ireland a bloody nose by going all out. They won’t die wondering. Gatland’s class of 2024 seeks to play in a different way to the teams that gave Wales so much success in the New Zealander’s first spell.
“I’m really frustrated with Nick,” Gatland joked in his pre-match press conference against England. ‘We can’t play Warrenball right now – whatever that is! I’m still trying to figure out what “Warrenball” is.
‘We will have to find other ways to cross the profit line. We need to adapt and play differently. “We need to play with the players we have and create attacking opportunities.”
Over the years, Gatland’s playing style has been described by many as ‘Warrenball’; The implication is that his tactics rely almost exclusively on using large, powerful ball carriers to gain momentum. The decorated head coach always disliked the term first used by Brian Smith, who worked as Martin Johnson’s assistant with England.
Gatland, understandably and correctly, is not a fan of your suggestion that his tactics are one-dimensional. However, there is no doubt that his Wales team of yesteryear relied on brute strength to play a major role in his success.
From 2010 onwards, Gatland’s Welsh defense was a land of giants with the likes of Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and George North at the forefront. The result was a golden era full of trophies. Now, as Gatland begins Wales’ rebuild with a Six Nations team with an average age of just 25, the power is not there.
Gatland’s youth-driven rebuild in Wales sees him name a team with an average age of just 25.
Alex Mann’s try for Wales at Twickenham was a good example of the evolution of his approach.
North remains a key figure. But elsewhere, Wales lacks hauliers. They don’t have the brutal physicality of teams like Ireland or South Africa, so Gatland is trying something new.
Is ‘Warrenball’ dead? Did she ever really live? The statistics make for interesting reading. So far in this Six Nations, Wales are clearly looking to play more rugby than in the past.
Alex Mann’s try at Twickenham was a good example. Prop Gareth Thomas showed brilliant technique to get a pass under immense England pressure. Tommy Reffell and Tomos Williams supported to send Mann to the line. It was a beautiful team effort.
The numbers show Wales have the second-most passes (six) per possession in the Championship to date, just behind Ireland.
With five, Tompkins is the player with the most downloads in the Six Nations. Reffell tops the steals list, with Williams and young winger Cameron Winnett having made the most passes and metres. These statistics may seem insignificant when Wales are yet to win.
They may also be slightly biased by the fact that Gatland’s team had no choice but to go all out in the second half against Scotland after going down 27-0. But it is clear that Wales has changed its mentality.
“We want to play rugby one-on-one,” Gatland admitted. ‘We have tried to be positive in the way we play. We have probably gone too far on some occasions and that is part of learning.
‘Ireland is incredibly organised. They like to play a fairly structured game, but there are opportunities when the ball comes loose due to turnovers.
“We have to be aware of it, be prepared when those opportunities arise and make sure we are bold enough to take advantage of them.”
“We’ve talked all week about not being afraid.” Gatland’s assistant Rob Howley said this week: “The challenge for us is to make them (Ireland) as uncomfortable as we can.” I think we can get comfortable in a chaotic game and challenge them.
‘We need to create chaos. Everyone reacts differently under pressure. Expect Wales to try it today in what will be a contrast of styles. Ireland is far, far from being a one-dimensional whole.
Wales assistant Rob Howley urged his team not to be afraid when they take on the impressive Ireland.
Ireland are on their way to sealing back-to-back Grand Slams and have been unbeatable at home.
Andy Farrell has selected six forwards on his bench, suggesting he wants a physical approach
They are a brilliant team and can do anything. But coach Farrell’s selection of six forwards on his bench suggests Ireland will look to dominate Wales physically. On paper, they have the advantage.
The only change for Wales from the team defeated at Twickenham is the return of fly-half Sam Costelow. Ireland have given Ciaran Frawley a first trial outing at full-back in place of the injured Hugo Keenan, but otherwise Farrell’s side are in top form.
Ireland has already knocked down France and beaten Italy. For all the positivity and change in Welsh mentality, all signs point to another Irish success.
Peter O’Mahony, Ireland captain, said: “We have a good record.” We are playing well. We have a target on us, but that comes with the territory. You have to be okay with that.’
Ireland: Ciaran Frawley; Calvin Nash, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Jack Crowley, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Joe McCarthy, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony (captain), Josh van der Flier, Caelan DorisReplacements: Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Oli Jager, James Ryan, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Stuart McCloskey
Wales: Cameron Winnett; Josh Adams, George North, Nick Tompkins, Rio Dyer; Sam Costelow, Tomos Williams; Gareth Thomas, Elliot Dee, Keiron Assiratti, Dafydd Jenkins (captain), Adam Beard, Alex Mann, Tommy Reffell, Aaron WainwrightReplacements: Ryan Elias, Corey Domachowski, Dillon Lewis, Will Rowlands, Mackenzie Martin, Kieran Hardy, Ioan Lloyd, Mason Grady
Start: Saturday at 2:15 p.m. Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy) Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin