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Six Nations: Fired-up Ireland must go for broke, says Best

By Jonathan Bradley

With one somewhat unexpected loss, followed by two expected wins, tonight's clash with Wales (8.05pm kick-off) under the Principality Stadium lights will go a long way to defining how this Six Nations Championship is viewed for Joe Schmidt's men.

While many were looking ahead to next week's clash with England before matters even got going in Edinburgh five weekends ago, there was always the distinct possibility that the men in green would enter that clash having already had their hopes of a Grand Slam scuppered.

Away games in this competition are so often harder than they may appear on paper, and with Ireland facing three of them, four wins from the first four was always going to be a considerable challenge.

It's something Schmidt alluded to immediately after the Scotland defeat, but there is little doubt that welcoming Eddie Jones' side to Dublin next Saturday with only two wins under their belt would never have been considered an acceptable state of affairs.

As such, tonight will tell us much about an Ireland side who have enjoyed considerable highs, but endured a number of lows, since this time a year ago.

"We will find out a lot," said team captain Rory Best, who wins his 103rd cap tonight.

"To come to a place like this and perform in an intense atmosphere will be a big statement of where we are and of where the squad is because it is going to take a 23-man effort.

"The last quarter of the game, you would imagine, is going to be finely balanced and it is going to take the bench coming on and fitting in seamlessly... it is going to be a mark of where this Irish squad is."

Even in this period of historic success under Schmidt, Ireland haven't quite produced a statement victory away from home in the Six Nations.

They have lost twice at Twickenham since the Kiwi took over, while also falling in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Paris.

While both of their championships under Schmidt were won on the road, neither was exactly against the most motivated of opposition. With Wales no doubt champing at the bit to answer back to the landslide of criticism coming their way after losing to Scotland two weeks ago, a win for the visitors would buck the trend and, according to Best, show the side's mental fortitude.

"Whatever about November (wins) and the French game (two weeks ago), bar the Chicago game against New Zealand, they were all at home," he said.

"If you look at results historically, it is perceived to be easier to play at home.

"This will be a big statement of where we are as a squad and how mentally tough we are."

And, of course, the prospect of setting up a championship decider against England a week from tomorrow provides quite the carrot too.

"We want to be involved in the last weekend because we have a group of players, and a coaching staff, who want to win things and who set our standards quite high," added the skipper.

"So from that side of things, it is important but we know that it will only happen if we perform, and that is all we will be focusing on."

As with all Wales games in Cardiff, armchair sports psychologists have been out in force all week debating whether the visitors should agree to or reject the hosts' request that the roof in the stadium be closed.

After leaving their decision until yesterday, Ulsterman Best revealed that little consideration was given to the mental battle, with considerations much more practical instead taking precedence.

"There is rain forecast," said Best who, as a man from a farming background, knows all about planning around the weather.

"Joe asked myself and Johnny (Sexton) and it was about taking out the risk of wind and rain. It wasn't an easy decision but that was the main reasoning.

"Elements of our game against France were compromised by the weather so we are comfortable with the decision.

"Both sides like to play with width so it takes the weather out of it."

Best and his side will be backed heavily at the bookies today given Wales' suspect form but, as always, he believes there is little chance of under-estimating a side they haven't beaten in a full-blown Test since 2014.

"The favourites tag doesn't affect us, we will focus on our own game," he said.

"We have prepared very well and we are in a good place.

"There is pressure on all sides during these final two weeks and we want to keep the winning sequence going.

"We know if we lose, the championship title is dead for us," he said.

"They expect to win, like us, so there is pressure on them too."

Belfast Telegraph

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