The Ireland rugby team stand on the threshold of an achievement that would exceed anything they have done since the 2009 Grand Slam. In an eight day span, they will play Wales in Cardiff and England at the Aviva. Win both and with some bonus point luck, Ireland will win the Championship. This is incredible considering the kick to the crotch that was the Murrayfield defeat. A third Championship in the Schmidt era would be an astonishingly satisfying result not merely because of the silverware. Win these two games and Ireland will have mercilessly crushed the dreams of their two most bitter rivals.
Both opponents have different dreams to be crushed. We will get to Eddie Jones, their win streak and their Grand Slam dreams at a later date. First come Wales, under Friday night’s lights in Cardiff. Wales are now just looking to save face. They’ve had a dire 2017 and are arguably at their lowest ebb of the Gatland era. Lose to Ireland (or in Paris the week after) and it’ll be the first Six Nations since 2010 that Wales have lost three games. They bottled the England game and capitulated terribly in the Scotland game and now find themselves on the precipice of a memorably bad tournament. For Wales, this Six Nations could easily end with a single victory over Italy to their credit. And they were losing that match at halftime.
Should Ireland win Friday, the recriminations could be ugly. With an eye on some of the past indignities that Ireland have experienced in Cardiff, a win Friday would be especially sweet
Rob Howley faced a dilemma in the days that followed the Scotland loss: look to the future and blood new talent or stick with his boys. Incredibly, Howley doubled down on the old guard and is sending out the same XV that started in Murrayfield. In 2013, Ireland learned the dangers of blooding new players in the middle of the Six Nations but surely some change (if not a total overhaul) was required after the Scotland result. All across Welsh rugby Twitter yesterday, fans put that famous Einstein quote to Howley.
— Jamie Phillips (@JPGwent) March 8, 2017
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results" - Albert Einstein to Rob Howley…
— Josh Gardner (@joshgardner) March 8, 2017
The cracks in the foundation are in plain sight. Alan Wyn Jones, so long a totemic figure in the second row for Wales, has only proven to be an ordinary captain. I saw a stat saying of the seven games he has captained Wales, he has only won three games, all against Italy. Regardless of Dan Biggar’s efforts to spin it otherwise, ‘Kickgate’, as it has been dubbed in the Welsh media, has massively undermined AWJ’s captaincy.
All the talk in the Welsh media after the hapless Scotland defeat was how Rob Howley had lost any chance to succeed Warren Gatland on a full-time basis. His team selection for Ireland feels like an exercise in damage control. George North is clearly off form but there was no call up for Steff Evans. When Shaun Edwards admitted Monday that you want to close games with your best players on the field, he was admitting that Sam Davies is playing better than Bigger, who’ll wear the red #10 shirt Friday regardless.
Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards on Sam Davies: "Sometimes best players are on the bench because games are won and lost in last 20 minutes"
— BBC Wales Sport (@BBCWalesSport) March 6, 2017
Ireland should feel bullish marching out into the heavy metal pyro show at the Prinicipality. On current form, they edge Wales in every critical position. Even the imperious Wales backrow is in great decline. Ireland’s first quarter will be especially telling. The start against France was again plodding. Urgency will be required, especially after the sluggish start to Ireland’s game in Cardiff two years ago. It will be fascinating to see if Ireland remain aggressive when winning penalties near the Welsh posts (presuming Barnes gives Ireland penalties). There was a noticeable shift in strategy in the second half of the France game.
For Wales, the hope is that Ireland will be spooked by the surreal fixture placement, that Wayne Barnes will officiate with a red shirt on and that the packed Principality will summon one last great performance from this Wales team. Howley will be telling himself that Wales nearly had England and Scotland, but for bad luck and poor execution. But something feels broken about Wales under this coach. Howley reminds us of a middle-aged male with about 10 drinks on, leaving one of those vaunted Cardiff night clubs arm in arm with a woman he’d introduced himself on the dancefloor. He struts confidently but he’s old enough to know that he’s venturing back into the arena more in hope than expectation.
And that’s a dangerous position to find yourself in. Because in Cardiff, they don’t tolerate limp performances, especially on Friday nights.