Three key Six Nations challenges as Wales get ready for Ireland clash

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Three key Six Nations challenges as Wales get ready for Ireland clash
Wales coach Warren Gatland
Wales coach Warren Gatland
Profimedia
Ireland, with two impressive victories under their belt, will start as warm favourites for the Six Nations third-round match with Wales, who have lost both their matches by narrow margins, at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

Whilst the bookmakers and former players have written off Welsh chances Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is more circumspect saying Wales historically find that bit extra when they play the Irish.

AFP Sport picks out three challenges which may prove key to the outcome of the match.

Battling the odds

If one took the bookmakers' prediction and the statistics collectively then one might as well give the points to the Irish. However, as Warren Gatland said at the outset of the tournament, you take Wales for granted "at your peril."

Nevertheless, the bookmakers have the Irish beating the inexperienced Welsh side by a margin of 23 points.

Given that Ireland have beaten a more experienced Welsh side by more than 20 points in their last two meetings, some might say that is a generous points margin.

Former Wales backrow forward Alix Popham told AFP that Gatland has done the right thing in blooding fresh talent and you only find out about players if you throw them into the "Colosseum."

For the moment, Lansdowne Road is European rugby's Colosseum.

The Irish are seeking an 18th successive home Test win, they have lost just two of their last 40 at home, and are one win away from equalling England's Six Nations record of 11 successive wins in the tournament.

Thus it seems only those with the most rose-tinted of spectacles could dream of Wales securing their first Six Nations win in Dublin since 2012.

However, thus far the young bloods have displayed great spirit and a fair amount of skill.

Storming back from 27-0 down to lose only 27-26 to the Scots and pushing an England side - admittedly also in the process of rebuilding - all the way before losing 16-14 at Twickenham suggests, as Farrell said, that the Irish face a really tough "scrap."

For ex-Ireland fullback Hugo MacNeill a Welsh win would be a good thing for the tournament in opening up the title race but added it would be a "major shock, though that is the beauty of sport."

Centres of excellence

The clash of the centres should be some spectacle and not one for the faint-hearted.

Here at least Gatland can rely on seasoned heads in George North and Nick Tompkins which is just as well as they face the British and Irish Lions duo of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki.

Aki had an outstanding World Cup - earning himself a World Player of the Year nomination - and looked in equally fine fettle in the 38-17 dismantling of the French.

Injury-prone Henshaw has taken full advantage of the shoulder issue plaguing Aki's centre partner at the World Cup, Garry Ringrose.

Gatland used both the Irish centres in the Lions series against South Africa in 2021, but Andy Farrell believes they have developed beyond the type the Wales head coach likes at centre.

"Warren's always loved somebody that can get you over the gainline, your Jamie Roberts, George North type character," said Farrell on Thursday.

"But the way I see Bundee Aki now along with Robbie Henshaw is way more than that.

"How they've come on as far as their game understanding, their skill set, their communication, their knowhow of how to play the all-around game has come on leaps and bounds."

Welsh out to ruin Doris's day

Gatland is a past master at mind games leading into matches.

This time he has warned Ireland that just as the All Blacks did in their epic Rugby World Cup quarter-final last October, so his players will be looking to "knock some individuals off their perch".

Caelan Doris may be one of those he has in mind - the No. 8 was targeted by the All Blacks - and if they succeed then the battle of the backrows could swing in Wales's favour.

Doris's opposite number Aaron Wainwright has been outstanding so far in the tournament, as has been flanker Tommy Reffell, and the backrow is one area where Gatland can be optimistic they are almost Ireland's equals.

"They (Wainwright and Reffell) have been very good and great to watch," Popham told AFP.

"We have had a large selection of great backrowers over the years and these two have certainly put their hand up."

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