This weekend sees the Northern Hemisphere start their preparations for the World Cup with a series of warm-up matches, beginning with Wales facing Ireland in Cardiff. In a unique scenario where both coaches have been talking to each other regarding selections, this match has a very experimental feel to it as both sides seek to develop depth in their squads and combinations that they can take to the World Cup. Despite this, given that all of these players will be putting their hands up for a place at the World Cup, there should be no lack of intensity to the proceedings as evidenced by this game being played in front of a sold out Millennium Stadium crowd!
Wales vs Ireland
Saturday, August 8th
While this match in terms of selection has a very experimental feel to it, as mentioned above it should be an entertaining contest, with players from both sides determined to make an impression on their respective coaches and stake a claim to a World Cup place. This match has been unique in Test rugby in that Irish Coach Joe Schmidt and Welsh coach Warren Gatland have talked to each other prior to the match about the selections they might be making. As a result it is likely that both will have an idea of what to expect from each other on the field as they draw up their game plans for this encounter between the two sides.
The last time Wales and Ireland went head to head was in an enthralling Six Nations encounter which went down to the wire but ultimately Wales were to dominate. Wales got the better of Ireland physically and their decision-making was better, allowing them to ultimately walk away with a 23-16 victory and shatter Ireland’s hopes of a Grand Slam despite the fact that the Men In Green would ultimately go on to win the Championship.
This time around Wales field a side that in many ways is even more experimental than Ireland’s. Very few of the Welsh players running onto the pitch took part in that famous Welsh victory earlier this year. For Ireland however, they are captained by Jamie Heaslip who will be seeking to heal the pain of the loss that day. He will be supported by stalwarts such as Mike McGrath and Mike Ross with Rory Best on the bench – all of whom were there to bear witness to Ireland’s Six Nations hiccough. From an Irish perspective though there is a lot to get excited about in the lineup that Joe Schmidt has selected. Many people are excited to see Keith Earls return from injury and Andrew Trimble back in the squad on the wing. For me the likes of Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy are world-class flankers in the making. Meanwhile the lock pairing of Donnacha Ryan and Ian Henderson is some serious potential depth for Ireland. Felix Jones at fullback has impressed against tier two opponents and it will be interesting to see how he holds up against this kind of pressure. Paddy Jackson is a solid choice at fly half though it goes without saying he will never knock Johnny Sexton off his lofty perch and will be hard pressed to challenge for Ian Madigan’s spot, though he has youth on his side and I am sure his time will come.
For Wales I have to be honest and confess that I don’t know a great deal about the players that have been selected for this match. This match sees the return at fly half of James Hook who many had consigned to retirement. He has always been a quality player and there is certainly life left in him yet at Test level and it will be interesting to see how he matches up against Paddy Jackson’s youth. Scott Williams at Captain and in the centre is a known quality, and will be more than a match for Ireland’s Darren Cave, with the Welshman probably getting the edge here. Justin Tipuric is another proven commodity at flanker and is renown for causing opposition sides all kinds of problems in the loose along with Taulupe Faletau who is on the bench for this game.
However, despite home advantage I can’t help feeling that Ireland is experimenting with known and proven depth whereas Wales is, barring the above mentioned candidates, trying to find some. Therefore, I think I can quite confidently hand Ireland the win on this one despite the Millenium crowd doing their best in full voice as “the sixteenth man”. There are just too many question marks about what this Welsh side will do to really predict how the game might flow. Ultimately though there is enough skill coupled with experience in the shape of Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best to carry an Ireland side through to a win whatever surprises lay in store for them in this “mystery” Welsh side. Expect an entertaining game, but as it enters the final quarter, Ireland’s skill level and experience should help them pull away and discover just how much depth they have managed to build in the last year. Either way this should be a fascinating encounter to watch for anyone who wants to see what resources are being assembled in the Northern Hemisphere to try to tackle the Southern Hemisphere juggernauts come September!