BIG MATCH PREVIEW: Victory vital for Wales
AT TIMES there is an obsession with the bigger picture when it comes to international rugby.
When Wales were edging hard-fought encounters on their way to a Grand Slam a year ago it was said that they had turned a corner.
After the narrow and painful defeats of the 2011 World Cup they had finally learned to make it over the line.
Leigh Halfpenny’s late penalty winner in Dublin and incredible last-ditch tackle in London, Scott Williams’ opportunistic try at Twickenham, Dan Lydiate’s defensive heroics in the finale against France.
They all gave hope of Wales growing on the Test scene and finally being able to take on the big boys of the southern hemisphere.
Such talk seems foolish after a summer 3-0 series defeat in Australia and autumn whitewash.
But forget about the bigger picture, don’t worry about how Wales will fare against the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies in the future.
Enjoy the Six Nations for what it is – age old rivalries and the chance to get one over near neighbours.
And Wales head into the tournament unable to have the luxury of thinking big.
After seven Test defeats on the spin claiming the scalp of Ireland is all they can worry about.
All week there has been talk about building momentum; that Wales’ Six Nations will be shaped by the curtain raiser.
Lose and the trips to Paris, Rome and Edinburgh look pretty daunting; win and they will be able to start thinking of winning the championship.
The cliché bells ring when the word momentum is uttered, just as they do after the following phrase: ‘we’re not looking beyond this week’. But it’s an appropriate one because there can be no thoughts about defending their crown and sending a message to tournament favourites France and England – after a miserable second half to 2012 Wales just need a win.
And key to achieving that will be the 2009 Lions front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones.
The trio are a sizeable comfort blanket given the injury woes of the past few months.
“There’s a lot of experience in the front row and that rubs off on the rest of the forwards and the team,” said captain Sam Warburton.
“They have a large number of caps and invaluable experience. It is great to have Adam back – he has been a rock in the past.
“To see those three in front of me gives me a big lift and I have a lot of confidence in them.”
Their presence is required given the problems to fill the two positions that will be packing down behind them.
Locks Ryan Jones, Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies are all injured leaving interim head coach Rob Howley to turn to Newport Gwent Dragons new boy Andrew Coombs and Ian Evans, who hasn’t played since November.
It will come as no surprise when Ireland target them in the lineout, a tactic recognised by Howley’s selection of athletic Scarlets forward Aaron Shingler at blindside.
As ever, the set piece will be vital with both sides keen for their lineout to provide a launchpad for their backs.
Think back to Dublin last year and you will remember George North powering through Fergus MacFadden before conjuring a magic offload for Jonathan Davies to score.
The Scarlets pair worked a bit of magic yet it all started with quick ball from the back of the lineout. There are plenty of mouthwatering match-ups in the backs – Halfpenny v Rob Kearney, Alex Cuthbert v Simon Zebo, Davies v Brian O’Driscoll, North v Craig Gilroy.
If Wales get plenty of ball then they have the bulk behind to hurt Ireland, play it loose and the fast feet of the visitors’ runners will inflict damage.
It all makes for a fascinating start to the tournament.
There are plenty of big subjects that will be prominent over the coming weeks.
Howley has enjoyed just one success – against the Barbarians – and faces questions about his spluttering attack.
Captain Sam Warburton is under pressure from Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar needs to show that he is the man that deserves to wear 10, players will return from injury to stake a claim for starts.
But that’s all for next week and beyond, for now Wales just need to get back to winning ways and they should have enough to do so.
Hopefully by 4pm the players will be able to talk about the need to maintain the momentum in the Stade de France.