Irish eyes firmly on the prize
Wales welcome the only undefeated side left in the Championship to Cardiff on Saturday but, with both sides back in the race for honours, a hostile reception awaits the Irish.
After bouncing back from the disappointment of an opening round defeat to England, Wales once more return to the Millennium Stadium after successive away wins against Scotland and Paris.
And the home side will be desperate not to lose at their Cardiff citadel for the second time this season.
Ireland come into this one full of confidence after their competent dismantling of England in Round 3.
With Johnny Sexton in the form of this Test career and every squad member now fully immersed in the Joe Schmidt project, the Irish represent formidable opponents for any side in world rugby right now.
That said, Schmidt’s side have been far from prolific – scoring just three tries in three outings to date – and the feeling is they will need to improve on that try-a-game average if they are to extend their 10-match winning sequence to a record 11th victory on the spin here.
Wales will be gunning for revenge having suffered a humiliating 26-3 reversal in Dublin last year.
Indeed, Ireland were the only team to defeat the Welsh the previous year, effectively denying Gatland’s side back-to-back Grand Slams in 2013.
How Wales would love nothing better than to derail Ireland’s Slam ambitions on Saturday.
Warren Gatland has named an unchanged starting XV from the side that won in Paris a fortnight ago with captain Sam Warburton set to lead the side out for a record 34th time, a phenomenal achievement for a 26-year-old.
Ireland are boosted by the return of Jamie Heaslip, with Cian Healy also primed for more action after some promising late cameos to date.
With these two Lions back in harness, Ireland are at full strength and will take some stopping.
One of Ireland’s most potent weapons has been their aerial dominance but the Welsh back three of George North, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny look well equipped to cope with this.
Expect Schmidt to unleash an alternative attacking strategy should this threat be nullified.
Ireland have lost only twice in Cardiff since 1983. Indeed the Millennium Stadium holds particularly fond memories for members of this Irish side, none more so than captain Paul O’Connell who has lifted two European Cup titles and secured a Grand Slam at the home of Welsh rugby.
O’Connell will make his 100th cap for the Irish on Saturday and expect Ireland’s centurion to lead from the front with Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slam still all to play for.
With confidence soaring and a highly effective, low-risk game-plan in place, it’s hard to look beyond the Irish at the moment.
Wales, however, at home will not go down without a fight so Ireland may just squeak past and are available (-2.5) at 21/20.
The match kicks off at 2.30pm on Saturday, March 14th at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.