In the last of our previews of this weekend’s Six Nations action we look at Sunday’s clash between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff. Ireland travel to Wales surely feeling more than a little confident given Wales annus horribilis in 2020. But before the Irish get too carried away with themselves, if they reflected on their own 2020, the term mediocre is perhaps the strongest adjective they could come up with. They fell drastically short against the big teams, and simply got the job done against everyone else but rarely got your heartrate up. Wales heading into 2021 must surely feel that they can’t be any worse than last year, and with that behind them and some very painful but valuable lessons learnt they can now get back to being one of the Six Nations more reliable sides. In short, two teams with EVERYTHING to prove on Sunday, and two Coaches who are no doubt desperate to beef up their resumes should they need to start putting them out on the jobs market come March 20th. So here’s what got us talking over our pints of Guinness this week.
Wales vs Ireland – Sunday, February 7th – Cardiff
These two sides Six Nations opener is no doubt causing both Coaches to have difficulty sleeping this week. Both desperately need a win, and not just any old win. After 2020 it has to be a win full of fireworks and drama and rugby for the ages, all qualities we didn’t see much of from these great Six Nations competitors last year, especially Wales. In that respect Ireland and their beleaguered Coach Andy Farrell probably have the edge over Wales and Wayne Pivac, as Ireland met Wales twice in 2020 and came out smelling of roses on both occassions. However, both those fixtures were played in Dublin, and although the Principality Stadium as the largest cathedral in Wales will be empty of fans, you can bet that the WRU will have the strains of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Tom Jones’ Delilah thundering around the stadium at a volume that would put a Who concert to shame, along with all the appropriate piped Welsh crowd sound effects.
Is this the motivational link that Ireland have missed?
One of the most important ingredients in Irish rugby is passion, and it was sadly lacking in a lot of Ireland’s performances in 2020. There are few greater Irish motivational speakers than former Ireland and British Lions Captain and second rower Paul O’Connell. The famous “Manic Aggression” speech in the video above is one of rugby’s greatest changing room performances and it had an enormous effect on his charges that day back in 2007 against France, even if it didn’t quite get them the result they sought as a bit of French magic at the end stole Ireland’s glory. What it did provide though was one of those Six Nations matches for the ages and one we all still talk about today. That passion and fire in the belly was a key missing ingredient in Ireland’s approach to the game in 2020, without it they simply are not the team they could be. With O’Connell back in the mix we expect Ireland to roar once more. POC has almost godlike status here at the Lineout and we sincerely hope that the broadcasters will be letting us into the dressing rooms at half time this year, as a bit of O’Connell motivational speaking will do us all good in these COVID times.
Front row meat grinder
Ouch and more ouch. We can’t help feeling that Wales are going to get pulverized at scrum time on Sunday. They failed to impress in this department in 2020 and up against Ireland’s prop combo of Andrew Porter and veteran Cian Healy, all we can see is a world of hurt coming their way this weekend. These two individuals are perhaps the only candidates for the manic aggression in an Irish jersey award in 2020, and we expect no let up in 2021 especially with Paul O’Connell giving them some helpful advice.
Ireland’s lineout woes may be at an end
While there has been much experimentation in the Irish second row, James Ryan being the only constant, we think that Sunday’s partnership with Tadgh Beirne is Ireland’s long term solution in this department. While they will be up against Welsh legend and talisman Alun Wyn Jones, the Welshman’s partner Adam Beard doesn’t even register a signature on our radar. The Irish duo on the other hand are the definition of dynamism coupled to a seemingly tireless work rate that is second to none. With Beirne you have the added advantage of a marauding loose forward when he and Ryan are not causing havoc at the lineout and in the set pieces, and this is a package that their Six Nations opponents over the coming weeks may want to pay close attention to.
There were few genuine standout performers last year for Ireland, but winger and fullback Hugo Keenan kept grabbing our attention in his first full year of Test rugby. Although he made some mistakes, that proved costly at times, there was a core of skills there that were impressive. For quite a while now Ireland have been looking for someone with the kind of skill set under the high ball that former Ireland fullback Rob Kearney possessed. While you could argue that Jordan Larmour has the more electric all round skill set, between the two of them Ireland has surely found the answer to depth in the 15 jersey building towards the next World Cup. Larmour features on the bench for this match and should things not go according to plan expect him to turn Wales upside down, but up to that point we respect Coach Andy Farrell’s choice to continue building Keenan’s confidence by giving him the starting berth.
Something for Welsh fans to get excited about
We apologise to Welsh fans that we haven’t said much about their side in this piece and much of what we have said isn’t overly flattering. The Lineout’s back row role model Justin Tipuric naturally starts at 7 and his partnership with number eight Taulupe Faletau started to show some genuine promise towards the end of 2020. They were about the only two players who appeared to understand the kind of game that Wayne Pivac wants them to play. However, for us the future of Welsh rugby is embodied in winger Louis Rees-Zammit, and we sense Pivac feels the same. The twenty year old is the most exciting thing to happen in Wales since 70s all time great Gareth Edwards. We’re delighted to see him get a start on Sunday, and sincerely hope that this will be the norm in terms of selection decisions for 2021. He will only achieve the greatness he potentially has at his fingertips if he gets some serious game time. He may well meet his match facing up against Ireland’s James Lowe, but if he holds his own and even gets the measure of the Kiwi import in a green jersey then we rest our case.
So that’s it for this first weekend of one of the greatest shows on earth. We can’t wait and sincerely hope it lives up to its billing, and is the start of the long road out of the rugby wilderness caused by COVID-19. Perhaps the best way to approach the next 7 weeks and celebrate it despite the constraints is best summed up by our fan favorite on YouTube – the mighty Squidge. Enjoy, stock your fridge, turn up the volume, get together on line with your mates and revel in one of our glorious sport’s most wonderful festivals.