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Irish aim to make the Welsh suffer

Schmidt's men are expecting a backlash from wounded Dragons with Lions places on the line

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rob Howley was in charge, the Lions tour was looming and Wales came into the Six Nations on the back of a mid­dling November.

Coming into this year's Six Nations, the parallels with 2013 were clear but the story emerg­ing in 2017 is a different picture, with Wales and Ireland reversing their roles.

Four years ago the Dragon roared back after a terrible first half showing against Ireland to win the title by dismantling England on the final day; this year's crop are out of the running.

Instead, it is Ireland who are aiming to bounce back from a disappointing first half show­ing on their first outing to win the Championship at home to England on Super Saturday. Four years ago, the wheels were coming off for Declan Kidney and it ended in disaster in Rome.

What do the 2013 Irish and the current Wales team have in common?

They both went to New Zealand in June at the end of a long World Cup season. That 2012 tour was a disaster for Kidney's regime, finishing as it did with a 60-0 humiliation in Hamilton.

Things never got that bad for Warren Gatland's men but it was a long, joyless three weeks which featured a humbling midweek defeat to the Waikato Chiefs that went with the three-Test whitewash.

In the years since, the Irish players have all talked about how that painful experience of Hamilton haunted them for a while afterwards and it certainly infected their confidence when it came to the subsequent season, yet the Welsh tour is not featur­ing much in the analysis in the principality.

Instead, the focus has sur­rounded a perceived conserva­tism of selection, the blunt edge of Howley's attack and the lack of new faces in what is the most experienced 23 in the tournament.

During last season's Six Nations and the subsequent summer tour, Wales looked to introduce a more expansive off-loading game, but in this year's tournament they have tightened up and thrown fewer off-loads than anyone else.

2013 was Ireland's worst Six Nations campaign, while the Welsh produced one of the clas­sic Six Nations performances in their 30-3 mauling of England in Cardiff.

They went on to dominate Gat­land's selection for the subse­quent successful Lions tour of Australia, and two years later they put all of their winning, big-game experience to good use by effectively knocking the English out of their own World Cup.

Interestingly, Gatland joined the Wales squad last weekend. The New Zealander is once again on a sabbatical to pre­pare for the Lions tour of New Zealand and while he has spent time in the other camps to ob­serve preparation and catch up with the neutrals, it seems hard to believe that he wasn't more hands-on with his own team at the Vale of Glamorgan.

"It is also a gentle reminder to the players that there are Lions eyes upon us as well," assistant coach Robin McBryde said. "I'm sure that will be in the mind of the players."

Before the Six Nations began there was some optimism that Howley would change things up when he named seven uncapped players in the squad, but none of them have seen action and the discontent levels are growing.

Set against a horrendous inju­ry list, the 2015 World Cup pool win over England and close shave quarter-final against South Africa were the high water-mark but there is a tired look to the men in red this season. Their coaching ticket, with and without Gatland, have been to­gether for six seasons, and while the captaincy has passed from Sam Warburton to Alun Wyn Jones, but that should only add to the leadership in the ranks.

The team that lost to Scotland featured six Test Lions, while Rhys Webb, Liam Williams and Ross Moriarty are furthering their claims to join that pantheon this summer.

Yet, for all that they went toe to toe with England and dominated the Scots for long periods, they come into the Ireland game on the back of successive defeats.

An end-game malfunction and selection faux-pas cost them at momentum-generating victory three weeks ago before their meltdown at Murrayfield.

It's not like they have played terribly, but there has been a week of recriminations over the moment when Dan Biggar wanted to go to the corner but Jones pointed to the sticks and Leigh Halfpenny turned down the shot at goal - summing up a perception that the team are not on the same page.

There are calls for Howley to wield the axe and drop some big names to infuse new blood into the team, but the coach will point to the world rankings conundrum. With the stakes this high, Sam Davies, Keelan Giles and Steff Evans are likely to have to wait for their chance.

Amid this, Joe Schmidt's men are steeling themselves for a back­lash.

You have to go back 10 years to find the last time Wales lost three on the trot, but like Ireland in 2013 they are on a downward spiral.

Ireland's mission is to keep them on the same trajectory.

Belfast Telegraph

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