Six Nations: Formidable Ireland can extend record home run against Wales

Farrell’s men unlikely to take the threat of Gatland-led opposition lightly

Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, Kick-off: 2.15pm. On TV: Live on RTÉ and ITV Sport

Well, it’s been an interesting week, and if it lives up to its historically fiendish unpredictability, not to mention the upbeat noises coming out of the Welsh camp, this might not be the walk in the Irish part than the bookies and many others expect. Hallelujah, it feels like a proper Six Nations week too.

The Welsh may have lost their opening two games, and indeed nine of their last 10 fixtures in the Six Nations, but they are clearly not of a mind to tug the forelock. Warren Gatland has led his callow team to believe that France and Italy were almost compliant in allowing this Irish team to play their brand of running and passing rugby.

“The challenge for us is making them as uncomfortable as we can, for every minute that we can do that, and ask different questions of them,” their assistant coach Rob Howley said this week. “We need to create chaos. Everyone reacts differently under pressure.”


In his column for the Daily Telegraph yesterday, Warren Gatland maintained this narrative and talked openly about legitimately targeting Ciaran Frawley, who is making his full Test debut in a relatively unfamiliar position. Far from taking umbrage at these remarks, Irish captain Peter O’Mahony shrugged his shoulders.

“Look, that’s the game, isn’t it? We have a good record, we are playing well. We have spoken about it and we have a target on us but that comes with the territory and you have to be cool with that and that you are going to get the best of every team.

“We know when we’re good that we’re going to put teams under pressure and other teams know that now as well. As a result, we expect to get the best of every team and we have no doubt but that we’re going to get the best of Wales tomorrow at 2.15.”

For O’Mahony, this will be a 13th outing as Irish captain dating back to his first in 2013, with Ireland having won 11 of the previous dozen. The exception was the first Test defeat in Brisbane in 2018 which Ireland avenged under his leadership by winning the second and third Tests.

It will only be his third at home though, the previous two being wins over Canada in 2016 and Australia in 2022 when Johnny Sexton was a late withdrawal and Jack Crowley (who is 11 wins from 11 with Ireland) was promoted to make his full Test debut.

So, this will be O’Mahony’s first time captaining Ireland in the Six Nations at home, and his kit will also mark his 50th Six Nations game. Yet he maintained: “You will probably say I am a broken record but any time you get picked for Ireland is going to be special, no matter what jersey you are in, be it your first, second, 99th, 110th. They are really important and incredibly special and tomorrow is no different for me.

“It is an incredible honour to get the opportunity to put on that jersey and play for your country and you have to treat it with the utmost respect.”

The forecast is for one of those Baltic Ballsbridge days, but with no rain or wind, which if it comes to pass should make for a good game of rugby. By every attacking metric, Ireland lead the way after two rounds, be it in carries (281), passes (431), defenders beaten (53), clean breaks (18) and tries scored (11).

Interestingly though, despite their two defeats, Wales are next best in many of those categories, namely carries (260), passes (334), clean breaks (10) and tries scored (six), while they are third highest in defenders beaten on 44.

It will clearly be part of the Welsh game plan to play with a very aggressive defensive line speed and physicality and do their best to get into Irish faces and disrupt the home side’s rhythm in a manner that both France and Italy failed to do.

But, no less than Farrell, Gatland believes the Six Nations is a shop window and that the product has a duty to entertain, a view with which seemingly not all of their counterparts agree.

In any event, this has the makings of a decent game, and hopefully the Aviva crowd can liven itself up a little. When Jamison Gibson-Park appeared to score only to have his try ruled out with the last play of the game in the 36-0 win over Italy, there was hardly a murmur. Most of the Sunday afternoon crowd were either removed from the action or were making their way to the exits.

Ultimately, you sense this might go one of two ways; either another comfortable and commanding Irish win in keeping with all of last season’s Grand Slam, the two outings to date and the last two meetings (by margins of 24 and 22 points) or that it will be a typically fierce and competitive Six Nations match.

And that’s the thing about the Six Nations. Wales were many people’s idea of wooden spoon favourites and for 45 minutes against Scotland they sure looked the part as they trailed 27-0.

Yet in losing that game by just a point and to England by two, this callow team could easily be two wins from two. They certainly could have won in Twickenham had Sam Costelow been fit.

His return is a boost, while the emergence of Alex Mann (two tries in two games) in tandem with Tommy Reffell, the best openside so far in the tournament, alongside the ever-durable Aaron Wainwright, has given them a particularly well-balanced back row.

Furthermore, with the emergence of Dameron Winnett, their back three have been lively too, as Rio Dyer has assumed the role of Louis Rees-Zammitt in lighting the red touch paper.

Yet this remodelled, fairly inexperienced Welsh side are much more heavily dependent upon Wainwright up front and George North in midfield for go-forward ball than are Ireland with their array of rumblers – be it the world-class Dan Sheehan, young Big Joe McCarthy, Caelan Doris, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw et al.

Furthermore, Wales’ scoreless first half at home to Scotland and their pointless second half against England at Twickenham in their own ways demonstrated that, while they can have a pretty competitive XV at given stages, they lack strength in depth.

By contrast, even with Hugo Keenan joining Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose and Iain Henderson on the list of those deemed hors de combat, Ireland’s squad is bursting at the seams with Test quality.

In particular, the quality of Ireland’s half dozen forwards in that 6-2 configuration on the bench looks like both an expression of intent and respect by Andy Farrell and co, but also designed to ensure the Irish pack dominates the last quarter.

Hence, this fixture may be notoriously unpredictable, and the Celtic neighbours have been noisy. But Ireland have won 10 Six Nations games in a row and are the warmest of favourites to equal England’s record of 11 in succession in 2015-16 for a good reason.

Ireland: Ciarán Frawley (Leinster); Calvin Nash (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jack Crowley (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (capt)(Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster). Replacements: Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Oli Jager (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster).

Wales: C Winnett (Cardiff); J Adams (Cardiff), G North (Ospreys), N Tompkins (Saracens), R Dyer (Dragons); S Costelow (Scarlets), T Williams (Cardiff); G Thomas (Ospreys), E Dee (Dragons), K Assiratti (Cardiff); D Jenkins (Exeter, capt), A Beard (Ospreys); A Mann (Cardiff), T Reffell (Leicester), A Wainwright (Dragons). Replacements: R Elias (Scarlets), C Domachowski (Cardiff), D Lewis (Harlequins), W Rowlands (Racing 92), M Martin (Cardiff), K Hardy (Scarlets), I Lloyd (Scarlets), M Grady (Cardiff).

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Ita).

Overall head-to-head: Played 134. Ireland 57 wins, 7 draws, Wales 70 wins.

Biggest wins: Ireland – 54-10 (home), 2002. Wales – 29-0 (home) 1907.

Last five meetings: (2020, 6N) Ireland 24 Wales 14. (2020, ANC) Ireland 32 Wales 9. (2021, 6N) Wales 21 Ireland 16. (2022, 6N) Ireland 29 Wales 7. (2023, 6N) Wales 10 Ireland 34.

Five-game formguide:

Ireland – Won 13-8 v South Africa (RWC), Won 36-14 v Scotland (RWC), Lost 24-28 v New Zealand (RWC), Won 38-17 v France (a, 6N), Won 36-0 v Italy (h, 6N0.

Wales – Won 40-6 v Australia (RWC), Won 43-19 v Georgia (RWC), Lost 17-29 v Argentina (RWC), Lost 26-27 v Scotland (h, 6N), lost 14-16 v England (a, 6N).

Betting: 1/40 Ireland, 50/1 Draw, 19/1 Wales. Handicap odds (Wales +23pts) 10/11 Ireland, Draw 22/1, 10/`11 Wales.

Forecast: Ireland to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times