Ireland’s convincing victory over England in Round 3 of the RBS 6 Nations had a nation rejoicing. And while it is reasonable to assume we are talking about the fans in the Emerald Isle, it is in fact Wales that were perhaps celebrating most wildly.
The Welsh Grand Slam dream died after an opening day loss, but England’s defeat to Joe Schmidt’s team last week put the ability to win the Championship back in Wales’ hands. That, of course, means that Saturday’s clash between Wales and Ireland has serious title implications.
An Ireland victory in Cardiff would insert them as red hot favourites to claim the Grand Slam. They face a last day trip to Murrayfield, and while of course Scotland will be no pushover, they could be going in to that game with four defeats from four. Get through Saturday and it is Ireland’s Slam to lose.
A victory for Warren Gatland’s side would take us in to a thrilling final day of the championship, with points difference very much in play for the second time in as many years. Last year it was Ireland that triumphed over England in the final standings despite losing to them earlier in the tournament, allowing Brian O’Driscoll to retire as a winner.
Should it come down to a final day shootout between the three teams with identical records then - as mentioned – Ireland travel to Murrayfield, England will host France and Wales head to Rome to play Italy.
Of course, first we have the hugely appetising encounter between unbeaten Ireland and resurgent Wales. While the 19-9 scoreline didn’t suggest complete Irish supremacy over England in game three, in reality they never allowed Chris Robshaw and co to get close to a fight back. They out-thought and outfought England and were as impressive in picking off weaknesses as the English were disappointing.
Wales meanwhile were the beneficiaries of some French wastefulness and the unerring boot of Leigh Halfpenny last time out in Paris as they claimed a fine win. They have now bounced back from the England defeat with consecutive victories and that, allied with home advantage, gives Wales more than a fighter’s chance of pulling off a victory.
Saturday’s clash will be Irish captain Paul O’Connell’s 100th cap for his country, adding extra incentive for him and his teammates. Opposite number Sam Warburton will be keen to ruin the party and keep Wales in the hunt for what would be an against the odds championship victory.
Gilbert Rugby ambassadors have the chance to play a decisive role in the contest from the bench. Richard Hibbard was impressive last week when introduced in the second half in Paris, while Ireland’s Sean Cronin has made it his modus operandi to come on for Ireland and ensure they get over the line when the pressure begins to mount. Both will be hoping when they are introduced they are shielding a winning position rather than overcoming a deficit.
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