Rugby

Talking points as Ireland look to continue Grand Slam hunt against winless Wales

Wales face mission improbable against the reigning champions in Dublin.

Ireland are firm favourites to beat Six Nations rivals Wales
Ireland v Wales Ireland are firm favourites to beat Six Nations rivals Wales (Niall Carson/PA)

Ireland face their next challenge on Saturday in the quest for historic back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slams.

Andy Farrell’s team tackle Wales in Dublin, having taken pole position following bonus-point victories over France and Italy, while Wales lost their opening games against Scotland and England.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points ahead of the game.

Herculean task awaits Wales

Wales are rank outsiders on their latest Aviva Stadium visit, rated no better than a 14-1 chance by some bookmakers, but it is not difficult to see why. While Wales have lost nine of their last 10 Six Nations games, victory for Ireland would also see them equal England’s record of 11 straight victories in the tournament. When Ireland’s home record is factored in – two defeats from the last 40 starts – it all adds up to mission improbable for Warren Gatland’s team. They went desperately close to defeating Scotland and England in their opening Six Nations fixtures, but Ireland in Dublin is a challenge on another scale.

Ireland look unstoppable

Ireland recorded an outstanding Six Nations victory over France in Marseille
Ireland Ireland recorded an outstanding Six Nations victory over France in Marseille (Andrew Matthews/PA)

After the crushing disappointment of yet another World Cup quarter-final exit, Ireland have shown no hangover, blasting out of the blocks with emphatic wins against France and Italy, while bringing the prospect of winning back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slams for the first time ever closer. Two of their remaining three games are at home, and it could be that the hard work has already been done – defeating Les Bleus in Marseille – in terms of a relentless drive for more Six Nations silverware. They will not look at it that way, of course, but it is difficult to ignore just how good Ireland are. Everyone else can only look on with envy.

Wales’ set-piece game has to function

Wales’ Six Nations campaign so far has been a tale of two halves. In the first 40 minutes against Scotland they failed to score a point, then in the second 40 minutes against England they did not trouble the scorers either. Wales almost did enough to win both games, losing 27-26 and 16-14 respectively, and were left reflecting on what might have been. Wales lost six lineouts on their own throw in the Scotland clash, with that key area proving shambolic at times, and the scrum has also creaked occasionally amid many good moments. There is no wriggle room against Ireland. If Wales get their set-piece basics wrong, they will be punished mercilessly.

Hugo Keenan absence a blow for Ireland

Leinster full-back Keenan has proved a dominant force in attack and defence for Ireland during recent seasons. A player who always seems to excel, he has emerged as arguably the leading full-back in northern hemisphere rugby, someone that head coach Farrell knows is ultra-reliable and also offers star quality. A knee injury, though, has sidelined him from the Wales clash, with Farrell calling up Keenan’s Leinster colleague Ciaran Frawley for a first Test start after two appearances off the bench. Given Ireland’s supreme playing structure, Frawley will inevitably slot straight in, but Keenan is a major loss.

Lions future versus Lions past

Former British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland (left) and his successor Andy Farrell
Warren Gatland and Andy Farrell Former British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland (left) and his successor Andy Farrell (John Walton/PA)

Wales boss Gatland led the British and Irish Lions on their last three tours, including masterminding a Test series triumph against Australia in 2013 and a drawn series with New Zealand four years later. He has left big shoes to fill for next year’s Australia mission, but his successor Farrell was emphatically the leading candidate to take over on the back of Ireland’s stunning successes in recent seasons and he knows the Lions ropes, having worked as one of Gatland’s coaching assistants 11 years ago. Their tactical battle this weekend will be fascinating as two of the finest rugby brains around put masterplans into operation.