Back in 2019, when Ireland travelled to Cardiff to deny Wales a Grand Slam, Joe Schmidt did not concede to Wales’ request to have the Principality Stadium roof closed.
After Wales stormed into a big early lead and the heavens opened, making it even harder for an off-colour Irish team to play catch-up, Brian O’Driscoll memorably tweeted a request for the roof to be closed please.
Andy Farrell was the Irish assistant coach then, but as with Johnny Sexton’s late withdrawal against Australia and Tadhg Furlong being ruled out of Saturday’s opening 2023 Guinness Six Nations game, the Irish head coach readily embraces all such challenges and tests. He wants his players to do so as well, and they were in agreement with having the roof closed.
“It’s nothing to do with the conditions,” he reasoned after announcing the Irish side to face Wales, which features three changes from the starting XV in the 13-10 win over Australia, with Finlay Bealham replacing Furlong and both James Lowe and Johnny Sexton returning.
“We want to embrace it and learn from it, and keep progressing because it’s certainly what’s coming down the road. I don’t know if what’s coming down the road is going to be bigger and better, it will have to go some to beat the atmosphere in Cardiff, so these are the moments you relish, that you look forward to.
“Hopefully you walk into the stadium with a good, strong body language that says, ‘this is where I want to be’. That’s the next step for our lads.”
Farrell believes their preparation over the past week in Portugal before their flight to Cardiff on Thursday afternoon has been excellent.
“The reason that it has been pretty good is because there’s an appetite to get better. That’s the main point. How are we going to progress our game and what does that look like? And let’s go after it and let’s see what we can do.”
Anticipating “a big physical battle”, Farrell said: “How we mentally handle the occasions is going to be key.”
Several players this week have referenced the influence of sports psychologist Gary Keegan and Farrell also believes that the mentality of the squad is the area where Ireland can “make the biggest strides”.
He added: “I think we’ve made a start; I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we can get to. The game is a very emotional one and being able to control those emotions so that we can do what we say we’re going to do is key to us.”
Farrell has looked at other sports, and particularly football teams who have remained at the summit.
“I’m obsessed with why teams keep being successful, why they are able to stay at the top, because everyone is trying to hunt them down. The Man Uniteds of the golden years. I’m a Man City supporter,” he reminded us again which, well, merely demonstrates that no one is perfect.
“But I was in awe of how they kept on winning title after title, because it’s so hard to do and the mentality and the fight to want to go out and attack the game in your manner is pretty key.
“I used an example of Man City playing Leeds away this year. A lot of superstars were in that side and Leeds went for them, physically went after them and it’s a tough old place to go, Leeds is. It’s hostile.
“Leeds were playing unbelievably well and I thought ‘wow, City, we’re going to see the character of the side here’. And City went after them, broke them, 1-0, broke them 2-0, game over 3-0.
“It takes a strong character, a strong mentality as a team to go to somebody’s back yard that means a lot to them and play your own game.”
Farrell has never met Pep Guardiola, although has met his one-time assistant, Mikel Arteta, who has taken Arsenal to the top of the Premier League.
“He’s a wonderful guy. Obviously, he’s doing a fantastic job there [at Arsenal)]so I wish him all the luck,” he said with a wry smile.
The Irish head coach has also met Alex Ferguson.
“Yeah, I’ve met him a few times. He’s an impressive man isn’t he, there’s an aura about him. Respect.”
It is a big step up for the 31-year-old Bealham, for whom this will be a first start in the Six Nations and fifth overall, the previous quartet having come against Canada, the USA, Georgia (where he had an uncomfortable day at loosehead) and most recently against Japan in July 2020.
But among his 23 caps as a replacement Bealham has closed out four of the five wins over the All Blacks, not to mention the entire second half against South Africa last November. He has also been scrummaging strongly this season with Connacht, for whom he scored a hat-trick of tries in his last outing against Newcastle.
A largely experienced bench retains Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Jack Conan, Ross Byrne and Bundee Aki, while welcoming back Iain Henderson and Conor Murray. The 24-year-old Ulster tighthead Tom O’Toole is now promoted and in line for his fifth cap.
“He’s been a project for a while and you get to that stage where you can’t keep chasing potential,” said Farrell. “His set-piece work, his bread-and-butter stuff has really come on over the last 12 months and that’s a credit to Ulster as well.”
Meanwhile, Roman Salanoa, the uncapped 25-year-old Hawaii-born tighthead who is having a breakthrough season at Munster, has been added to the Irish squad as cover and to give him experience of an away Six Nations match.
IRELAND (v Wales): Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Tom O’Toole (Ulster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht).