Two of the form teams in the tournament come head to head on Saturday morning and the winner will be tipped to reach the World Cup final. Australia versus South Africa then? No, it is in fact the two Celtic warriors, Wales and Ireland. If you called that before the tournament, you were a braver man than me. This is the stuff that dreams are made of as the anticipation builds towards the potentially epic showdown.
It is difficult to contain the burgeoning excitement for this one. Both sides have been excellent to date and getting visibly better with every game. There are side plots in the mix too (Warren Gatland to name one) and the some absolutely mouth watering individual battles across the park. It is an incredibly tough game to call but let us try anyway..
The Case for Wales
The Welsh began their campaign with the narrowest of losses to World champions South Africa, in a match they really ought to have won. They were more than a match for the Springboks on that day but just failed to close out the victory. Since that point, they have gone on to play some outstanding rugby dismissing all that has come before them in convincing fashion, although Samoa gave them a scare.
Wales, so often synonymous with slick backs and running rugby, have developed a hard edge up front and boast a quality pack. They possess two outstanding props in Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones in front of a hugely athletic second row which includes Alan Wyn Jones. Their set piece looks to be in rude health and the battle in the scrum in particular will be intriguing to say the least as the Irish scrum has proved a potent weapon for them in this tournament.
However, Wales won’t attempt to bash and bosh their way through Ireland up front. Warren Gatland’s side have an asset which Ireland do not – an open-side flanker in the traditional mould with real pedigree. Sam Warburton is not only Wales’s youngest captain of all time but he is also an outstanding number seven, who thrives at the breakdown. Of course Ireland have strengths of their own in this area, which we will come to, but they do not possess a player with these capabilities.
To this end, Wales will surely look to play a high tempo game, moving Ireland’s big back row around the pitch and utilising their dangerous back line. Rhys Priestland will use the strength of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in the midfield, while surely looking to bring the rather large and impressive George North into the game as much as possible. The Scarlets winger is 6’3, weighing in at 17 stone and has made quite the impression in the tournament to date. Leigh Halfpenny is also a notable threat coming from full back. The omissions of James Hook from the side and Stephen Jones from the 22 is a surprise though.
The Case for Ireland
After a shaky start, Ireland have grown into this World Cup emphaticall, disposing of the Tri Nations champions before putting a decent Italian team to the sword. Tellingly, Declan Kidney’s side did not concede a try in either one of these crucial encounters.
This looks a different side to the much maligned outfit who stuttered their way through the warm up games so unimpressively. A rejuvenated Paul O’Connell leads the charge in a pack that has a renewed sense of hunger and vigour. Cian Healy and Mike Ross have been weapons of mass destruction in the scrum, while Ireland will hope that Rory Best can overcome his shoulder problem to take the field on Saturday. The Ulster man has been truly outstanding thus far.
The Irish backline finally looks to be firing again as Ronan O’Gara and Conor Murray retain their places after impressive showings against Italy. Both players were assured throughout and managed to get the danger men outside them firing. O’Gara’s outstanding kicking ratio doesn’t exactly hurt either. The back three of Earls, Bowe and Kearney is settled and looking dangerous whilst the mainstays in the centre, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll, look to be hitting form at just the right time.
However, the most potent weapon in Ireland’s arsenal is their ultra dynamic back row. Didn’t you know that God could walk on water but Sean O’Brien can swim through land? The trio of O’Brien, Ferris and Heaslip have been phenomenal since the tournament began. Although slightly overshadowed, Heaslip has been playing like a seven in many ways, doing plenty of the grunt work at the breakdown and leaving much of the carrying to the two flankers.
O’Brien and Ferris have been ferocious to date both with ball in hand and in defence, constantly rampaging through defenders and smashing anything that moves. Their combination of power and fury is the mantra that Ireland will adopt going into this game could well make the difference in the overall outcome. The deadly duo will no doubt look to get a crack at the relatively novice Rhys Priestland early doors and will be pounding at the Welsh defence all day long. A more fearsome back row you will not find.
It is a clash that looks set to go to the wire, with a couple of points separating the sides at the final whistle. The fact that this Irish team have so much experience in beating the Welsh means they will bear no fears coming into the game and may have a slight mental edge. O’Gara will look to get them into the right areas of the pitch, from which to launch the power and fury. Ireland to shade it in an epic.