Despite two wins from three Six Nations games, Wales’ match against Ireland on Saturday is the real acid test of their progress, says ITV Wales Sports Correspondent Richard Morgan.
Ireland may be our Celtic cousins, but they’re also one of our biggest bogey teams. In the last ten encounters between the teams, the men in red have won only twice (in the Grand Slam winning seasons of 2005 and 2008), picking up some heavy hammerings along the way.
Then there’s the remarkable record that’s seen Ireland lose only once in Cardiff (in 2005) since 1983. No other championship team has enjoyed such a good run against the Welsh on home turf, even allowing for the dark days of the 80’s and 90’s.
The near ‘green wash’ of the last decade was built around a golden generation of Irish talent. The likes of Paul O’Connell, David Wallace and John Hayes up front. And the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Brian ‘waltzing’ O’Driscoll leading the way behind. The fact that many of them have either passed or are approaching the 100 cap mark says much for the consistency of a side that’s won several Triple Crowns to go with the Grand Slam achieved two years ago.
And on Saturday, Wales will face another nemesis from previous battles. Ronan O’Gara, also a cap centurion, who’s restored to the number ten jersey in place of Jonathan Sexton. The Munsterman, whose drop goal sealed Ireland’s first Grand Slam since 1948 two years ago, has been at it again this Six Nations – coming off the bench to spare his team’s blushes in Rome. A master at controlling games, Wales know they’ll need to counter him to stop Ireland.
Which is why this is the biggest game yet for James Hook at outside half. Against Scotland, Hook had the hapless Dan Parks opposite him, who suffered one of his worst games in a Scottish shirt. Against O’Gara, the pressure will be on Hook to pilot Wales around the park equally effectively, whilst producing the odd magic moment to open up the visiting defence.
And it’s another big game for the Welsh back row, who face an intimidating Irish unit. It’s been a case of so far, so good this Six Nations for young flankers Sam Warburton and Danny Lydiate, but they know they’ll face another stern examination against an opposing back row containing two Lions, plus the impressive Sean O’Brian.
In many ways, this is the most meaningful game Wales will face ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Here we have two sides well matched in many ways: in the IRB World rankings (Ireland are 6th, Wales 7th); in the number of British Lions starting (10 for Ireland, 9 for Wales); and in terms of population size and playing numbers.
Never mind next week in Paris, Wales really need to win this one to put down a marker ahead of the Autumn. Lose again at home, and it’ll be hard to argue with accusations of mediocrity.