It’s a day of milestones as Ireland visit the Millenium Stadium to try and keep their Grand Slam and championship dreams in good working order. Legendary hard man Paul O’Connell wins his 100th cap for his country, while Jonny Sexton achieves his half-century. Cian Healy will also tally 50 when he makes his way from the bench, and Tommy Bowe becomes the 25th player to notch 60 test appearances in the green jersey. Wales meanwhile celebrate Sam Warburton 34th match as captain, eclipsing the previous record set by Ryan Jones.
The individual accolades have taken over much of the buildup, but once the whistle blows for kickoff the pleasantries will be quickly forgotten. A fortnight ago this match looked like a formality for Ireland but Wales will have gained immense confidence with the win in Paris, and all of a sudden realise that if they somehow manage to pull this off, they are right back into the thick of things. Given their unconvincing form it seems odd that they could be in such a position, yet here they are.
Warren Gatland has rewarded his men by selecting the exact same match day squad bar two forced changes on the bench. Paul James and Bradley Davies miss out with injury and are replaced by Scarlets duo Rob Evans and Jake Ball respectively. Evans is set to win his first cap, a reward for his eye catching club performances. Ball is recalled after some ordinary form saw him lose his place to Luke Charteris and he missed out entirely against France.
Joe Schmidt has also maintained the status quo, though his side are boosted with the return of Jamie Heaslip, who has recovered surprisingly quickly from the fractured vertebrae suffered against France a month ago. Jordi Murphy returns to bench duty, with Tommy O’Donnell unlucky once again to be the odd man out. The addition of Heaslip restores Ireland’s first choice back row trio for only the second time since the match against the All Blacks in November 2013.
While on paper this meeting has the most relevance towards the championship, that doesn’t mean it will make for a choice encounter. Ireland have not been overly inclined to throw the ball around and will be even less so against the Welsh rush defense. More than likely Sexton will plug the corners and O’Connell will attack at the lineout. Wales have shown similar restraint, preferring to do their talking through the boot of Leigh Halfpenny. While it may make for rich drama, entertainment will certainly be a secondary concern.
This one should be a kicking extravaganza, from both hand and tee. On quality alone, Sexton wins it hands down. Wales may try to target him, either by crashing Jamie Roberts into his channel or directing their back row forwards in his direction on defense, but Sexton will find time somewhere and he knows where to put his team to earn another scoring chance. It’ll be close, but Ireland just have that little something extra. Take the visitors to continue their march to glory with a 6 point win over their gracious hosts.
WALES vs IRELAND
Saturday, March 14, 14:30 GMT, Cardiff
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
Assistants: Jérôme Garcès (FFR) & Federico Anselmi (UAR)
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)