Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Improve... or Ireland have no chance against the Welsh

Ireland's stand-in skipper Jamie Heaslip in action

Saturday's Ireland v Wales clash at the Aviva Stadium could be the pivotal game in this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship.

With the Welsh having beaten a gutsy Italian side 23-15 in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon and the Irish winning 28-6 against Scotland on Sunday, that leaves the early leaders hosting the past two seasons' champions this weekend.

Toss in the Warren Gatland factor in the wake of the former Ireland coach's decision to omit Brian O'Driscoll from last summer British and Irish Lions line-up for the winner-takes-all third Test against Australia, and you have the ingredients for a veritable feast.

As tacticians, Gatland and his opposite number, Joe Schmidt, are the two most astute coaches of the six in the series and with each aiming to outwit the other it promises to be a very physical game of chess.

Schmidt admits it will be difficult to spring surprises on his fellow-Kiwi.

Even in the warm afterglow of Ireland's opening match victory over the Scots, Schmidt (right) had already begun to address the reality of this weekend's set-to.

"To be honest, Gats has known me for a long time and I'm pretty sure he'll know what to expect. He's coached against Ireland and he coached Ireland so I think he'll know what to expect," he said.

And although the defending champions certainly were not overly impressive in seeing off Jacques Brunel's Italy, Schmidt's response when asked if he expects to see a better performance from them on Saturday was: "Yeah, I do. I do.

"Last year they were slow starters and they came through and beat everyone else having lost at home first round. I have no doubt they'll pick themselves up – they're too good not to. Across the board they're stacked with talent, size and speed.

"At the same time we have got to believe that we are formidable enough at the Aviva and we'll be very keen to demonstrate that."

Jamie Heaslip, who found himself leading Ireland when captain Paul O'Connell was withdrawn on Sunday morning due to a chest infection that robbed him of sleep, endorsed Schmidt's words regarding the need to improve if the Welsh locomotive is to be re-railed.

"It's a huge challenge against a team that's won the Championship two years in a row," said the Leinster No 8, who was the sponsors' man of the match against the Scots.

Having had a chance to study them close up in the course of the 2009 and 2013 Lions tours, Heaslip did not need to be reminded of what is coming across the Irish Sea this weekend.

He said: "After playing with a lot of them in the summer they are big guys, physical guys and good footballers, so a massive challenge.

"But right now, the six-day turn around, park that (win against Scotland). A bit of time off so you can recover (Sunday night), get the body right tomorrow (Monday) and try and hit the ground running (today)."

And buoyed up by having beaten Scotland, the stand-in skipper was able to say: "We all know that there's positives going into next week."

Thus it was that whilst making no attempt to play down the magnitude of task ahead, Heaslip declared his willingness to meet it head-on.

"We're going up against a massive team, champions the last two years," he repeated. "We want to test ourselves coming up against teams and players of that calibre.

"We'll give them the respect they deserve, put the video work in, train hard on the field and look at their strengths and weaknesses. But, we'll worry about ourselves then, focus on what we can do.

"Hopefully get through that stuff by Wednesday and be able to get the head right come Thursday, Friday and be ready for the game."

Schmidt's relief at seemingly having come through Sunday's scrap unscathed was plain to be seen.

Asked how important that was to his plans to topple the champions, he replied: "It's massive. One of the worst things about trying to manage a six-day turnaround is uncertainty. You're not sure if this guy's going to start or not and he's valuable to you.

"You're trying to get the right complement in the tight or in the back row or wherever and it's just trying to get that balance.

"At least you can plan with a little bit more certainty and the players know where they are a little bit more as a result."

And Schmidt admitted that forward-planning for the 2015 World Cup will play some part in his selections between now and the end of the 2014 championship on March 15.

That is a minor consideration at this stage, however. Right now, his sights are trained on what he called 'cup finals' against Wales, England, Italy and France.

"I think if I was going to give a ball-park (figure), it would maybe be 80-20, if that," was Schmidt's breakdown of championship v World Cup factors.

"Every Test match is a final," he stressed. "We have to be really competitive in this. There might be the odd 50-50 decision that you might go a little bit experimental, but this is as big as it gets for us.

"We've just got to keep picking the best 15 for the weekend and I'd say from weekend to weekend that 15 will alter slightly."

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