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Ireland v Wales: The back-row battle

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Bryn Palmer | 18:07 UK time, Friday, 3 February 2012

Ireland's Six Nations clash with Wales on Sunday is not short of interesting sub-plots and storylines.

But even 16 months out from the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, the back-row battle is ripe with intrigue.

Ireland duo Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris have already played for the Lions, in South Africa in 2009, while team-mate Sean O'Brien and Wales opponents Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau (plus the injured Dan Lydiate) are also strong contenders - fitness and form permitting - to feature on the next trip down under.

"If you were picking a Lions squad tomorrow, you would be hard pushed to leave out any of them; they are all phenomenal players," says former Wales and Lions flanker Martyn Williams, who won the last of his 99 Wales caps last August.

Williams has played alongside or against (and in some cases both) all of the back-rowers whose contest at Dublin's Aviva Stadium will go a long way to deciding the outcome. The Welsh legend gives us his lowdown on the individuals involved.

Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris is enveloped by two Welsh tacklers

Wales successfully negated the threat of Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris in their World Cup quarter-final. Photo: Getty

BLIND-SIDE FLANKER

IRELAND - STEPHEN FERRIS (AGE 26, 6ft 4in, 17st 8lb, CAPS 30, including 9 in 6N): He is an absolute beast. I got to know him on the Lions trip to South Africa (in 2009) and he would definitely have started in the Tests if he hadn't got injured. He has been unlucky with injuries but the way he plays, he is going to pick them up - he only knows one way. He is as hard as nails and so dynamic, and has been in outstanding form for Ulster. Even when Ulster were not as strong as they are now, he still stood out.

WALES - RYAN JONES (AGE 30, 6ft 5in, 17st 13lb, CAPS 58 - 27 in 6N): Dan Lydiate has become integral to Wales in the last 18 months with his graft and hard work, and when you do a de-brief on a Monday morning and his stats come up, you realise what a huge cog he is in the team. As much as he will be missed, this is one position where we have good strength in depth. Ryan is similar to Dan; his work-rate is phenomenal - his tackling, his carrying. He is a natural leader and one of the most experienced guys now Shane [Williams] has gone. He showed with a man-of-the-match display in the World Cup third/fourth place play-off what he still has to offer. Whether starting or coming off the bench, he is a huge part of the squad, helping the younger guys.

OPEN-SIDE FLANKER

IRELAND - SEAN O'BRIEN (AGE 24, 6ft 2in, 16st, 13lb CAPS 15 - 6 in 6N): Sean exploded on to the scene last season but I remember playing against him a few times when he was a young kid and thinking 'This lad is a handful'. His ball-carrying is second to none - he always offers himself and constantly gets over the gain line, he is an absolute handful. I think his preferred position is six, where he gets more freedom and is more effective as a carrier, rather than having to hit so many rucks and clear-outs. If you are not on the front foot as a seven, it is more difficult to get your hands on the ball. Ferris and O'Brien both excel at six but can equally play at seven and I suspect they will play 'left and right'.

WALES - SAM WARBURTON (AGE 23, 6ft 2in, 16st 3lb, CAPS 24 - 8 in 6N): He is absolutely world-class. Him and Dan [Lydiate] are two of the real modern-day pros -so professional on and off the field, and they are reaping the rewards. They analyse games so well. Sam maybe surprised a few people outside the UK at the World Cup but he didn't surprise me. He was outstanding but he has been doing that for a while, and has been brilliant for the Blues since he came back, particularly in the big European games. He has got the nod as captain again which is great for him. He leads by example and has an old head on young shoulders. He is very mature, very well spoken, and is totally comfortable with everything that goes with the job. What works in Warby's favour is that he is quite laid-back, and like with all great players, it doesn't matter what age you are, just the way he plays is good enough.

NUMBER EIGHT

IRELAND - JAMIE HEASLIP (AGE 28, 6ft 3in, 17st 1lb, CAPS 43 - 19 in 6N): I think he is world class. With Sergio Parisse and Imanol Harinordoquy, as well as Toby [Faletau], you have four of the best number eights in the world in the tournament. Jamie is right up there - his work in the contact area, turning ball over, his line-out work, is all top drawer. The thing that amazes me is he always seems to play - you very rarely see him have a week off, he always fronts up, his durability is awesome. I think he is the heartbeat of the Leinster and Ireland teams. He gives them go-forward, he is very vocal and plays a massive role pulling them together as a back row. The bigger the occasion, the better he plays, which is always a sign of a good player.

WALES - TOBY FALETAU (AGE 21, 6ft 2in, 17st, CAPS 11 - 0 in 6N): He is phenomenal, particularly when you take into account that his first major tournament was the World Cup. For me he is the most naturally gifted rugby player I have ever played with. A lot of the time you get great athletes who are not perhaps the most natural rugby players, and vice-versa. But he has got the whole package. Everything comes so easily to him. He worked really hard with the conditioning coaches after he first came into the Wales set-up last summer, and has just been unbelievable since. When you see him playing in a sometimes struggling Dragons side, you can imagine what he would do in one of the top teams. But he is the sort of player you can build a franchise around, he is that good. He is very quiet, but he just loves the game of rugby, he loves training, and he has been in outstanding form since the World Cup.

So who will come out on top in Dublin? Let's hear your views.

You can follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/BBCBrynPalmer.


Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    ireland will easily beat wales in this battle, they are more dynamic and they have a mean edge and aggression.

  • Comment number 2.

    Unless Wales can stop Ireland's back-row like they did in the World Cup Ireland will win the match, something made considerably harder by the absence of Lydiate. Jones is now of the same dynamic level despite his experience, could see Ferris or O'Brien running over him!

  • Comment number 3.

    Ireland's back row bear more similarities with one another than the Welsh back row do. In the world cup I believed the Irish back row would possibly be too physical for the Welsh, but, thankfully from my perspective, this proved not to be the case. I saw Warburton as a classic open-side, unlike O'Brien, Lydiate as a great workhorse, especially defensively, and Faletau as the man to get over the gain line. Ryan Jones is solid, but probably not as good as Lydiate was before getting injured, but I think Wales can still do a number on the Irish in this area. However, I love the Irish back row! All tremendous players, so really keen to see what happens on sunday.

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm am Irish supporter but first man on that Lions backrow has got to be Warburton. He's just too highly specialised.

    Then for the other two spots it's really a case of choose your best two from the 3 irish backrows, with Heaslip getting the nod at the moment because of experience and leadership. So a ...

    Ferris/ O Brien, Warburton, Heaslip combo would do it for me.

    Question: Can any of the English/ Scotish back rows compete with the above 6?

  • Comment number 5.

    In the World Cup match the tackling of Luke Charteris was phenomenal, I think Wales will match the Irish in the back row but the key to the match will be how Wales cope without Charteris and Alun Wynne Jones.

  • Comment number 6.

    The back row is a battle of brawn against brains and brains came out top last time around.

    Charteris made a lot of tackles last time out but he only played one half, B Davies played the second, which seems to get forgotten.

    Evans and Davies what they may lose in work rate, give Wales far more dog and go forward as a pair then Chateris and AWJ do and I think this is overlooked.

    Evans doesn't lack for strength (as POC) will remember from the game at the Ospreys, can break through tackles and give you 20 plus meters with pace for a big man (like the Australia game showed).

    6'9 he's no slouch in the line out either.

    I think this pairing is being vastly underrated going into this game as well as Faletau who has been in outstanding form.

    That being said, it remains very much as the World Cup game - if Wales can nullify Ireland's pack then they can win this.

    If not, and it will be a very difficult task, in Ireland and wanting revenge, if Wales can't stop the pack - then Ireland will come through with something to spare.

    However, if Wales can nullify the Irish back row as well as get some good go forward of their own with Davies, Evans Faletau and here is where I think Wales hold an advantage having - 6'3 Phillips, 6'4 Roberts, 6'4 North and 6'6 Cuthbert also hitting angles, coming inside - running off Roberts shoulder etc.

    I think Wales back line has huge size, physicality and athleticism and can also be like giving Wales extra forwards when they need to commit men.

    I also think Ireland missing O'Driscoll and the importance this could play has been very understated.

    He's the talisman and inspiration, when things are going wrong he along with O'Connell is the voice of inspiration and it'll be interesting to see how Ireland in general go - but especially the back line.

    Not to mention what a top player O'Driscoll is.

    I think he'll be a big, big miss, and in the respect of this particular game far more than S Williams for wales is - as Shane wasn't a leader in that respect and when your playing a side as physical as Ireland in Ireland where flair and space in going to be at a minimum - losing a 5'8 player that might hardly see the ball in Ireland for a 6'6 isn't always a bad thing.

    Personally, I'd like to have retained Shane for the last 20 as an impact player but ....

    Again, I think tactics of the two sides and the control of the two 10's will have a big impact on the game.

    Ireland need to look to dominate up front physically, Wales were able to stop this last time overall and not get caught up with the choke hold.

    Wales need to mix it up again through Priestland, plenty of dummy runners and not using Roberts as a constant outlet, plenty of supporting runners off the shoulders.

    Oddly enough the pressure is on Ireland - home, World Cup defeat to Wales and 3 rd in a row if they lose to Wales, they re the strong favourites and with most.

    I fancy Ireland again in a close game by a converted score at most, but I also thought that at the World Cup and like I said then, if Wales get their tactics right and play like they can there's isn't any doubt they can win this.

  • Comment number 7.

    Andinov01, as an English fan I would take none of the back row on a current lions tour, save perhaps Tom Croft; but he wouldn't be getting near my test 22. Same with Scotland, although I do like the what I've seen of Denton. (admittedly limited amount) To hear Martin Williams call Toby Faletau the most naturally gifted rugby player - not forward - he has ever seen is frankly terrifying. Some of his performances have been phenomenal, and he's what, 5/6/7/8 years off his peak?
    For the match, I do prefer the balance of the Welsh back row but Lydiate is a big miss as for me Jones isn't dynamic enough. Ireland, like England, need a 'proper 7', a world class one, but at least they, unlike England, have real quality to somewhat make up for this. It's a broken record, but it can't be emphasised enough how important a specialist 7 is; Pocock won the WC game v SA for Aus, and he did so because Brussow went off and SA couldnt get clean quick ball. Having said all that, I feel Ireland need to win this more and as such, will. Narrowly.

  • Comment number 8.

    i think northampton's tom wood would have been approaching the point to compete with the excellent wales and ireland back rows had he not suffered an injury in the run-up to the tournament. it would have made a for a more interesting contest if he had been fit and ready. i've always seen wood as a natural 7 at northampton, but maybe this is because he isn't the greatest ball carrier! tom croft at his peak would compete with the 6 but we haven't seen that for a number of years.

    i think this will be one of the closest fought six nations tournaments in a long time...can't wait.

  • Comment number 9.

    great blog and great comments. ru - you are right this is going to be a humdinger of a tournament. New coaches for 3 and a case of where to go next for the others. Yes man for man these are the best back rows but remember this is the 6 nations and anything can happen and usually does. This is what rugby is about - passion pride, banter, friendship and adventure and in the spirit of those mantras i hope no one minds me saying come on Wales!! enjoy everybody

  • Comment number 10.

    To hear Martin Williams call Toby Faletau the most naturally gifted rugby player - not forward - he has ever seen is frankly terrifying. Some of his performances have been phenomenal, and he's what, 5/6/7/8 years off his peak?

    Agreed - I know that Warburton was saying during the World Cup how he just couldn't get his head around Faletau and how he never have been able to play test Rugby at 20, and to be able to play 8 at 20 just blows his mind.

    He echoes the stuff Williams says and how just gets better and better all the time. Not just a lump that'll run straight as a physical battering ram, he has real pace, balance, physical power combined with real rugby ability.

    There could be great competition for places for the next lions tour - o'Brien, Ferris, Wood, Croft, Lydiate, Shingler, Warburton, Morgan, Heaslip, Denton, Faletau.

    Not too mention second rows - Evans, Charteris, Lawes, Gray, Ryan etc.

    This could be one pack that could stand up and even bully a SH sides.

  • Comment number 11.

    ' justabitmoreandwellbegreat wrote:
    ireland will easily beat wales in this battle, they are more dynamic and they have a mean edge and aggression.'

    Just like the quarter final in New Zealand!!!

  • Comment number 12.

    Heart says Cymru but head says Ireland by 15 points. Too strong up front and even without BOD, Earls and still perservering with Darcy, think the Irish have revenge on their mind and will produce a similar performance to the one that stuffed England last year.

  • Comment number 13.

    Can't wait for this one tomorrow, this back row clash promises to be immense. I think Ireland, under all the circumstances, but if Wales CAN get a result tomorrow... ho hoo! Time for even niggardly Englishmen like me to start believing some of the hype?

  • Comment number 14.

    Wales are going to miss Lydiate, that much is plain. But I think people are writing them off too easily. The World Cup seems like a lifetime away, but Ireland were beaten in the quarters, and beaten well, by Wales. People wrote Wales off then, saying Ireland would win because they're more 'dynamic'. But look what happened.

    The back row is key, but look at the backs as well. Ireland don't have Brian O'Driscoll, Wales don't have Shane Williams. But with the likes of Mike Phillips, who's like an extra forward at times, the cool head of Rhys Priestland and the battering rams of Jamie Roberts and George North in their ranks, and of course Warburton and Faletau, I'm putting my neck on the line and saying I think Wales will edge this.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    One of the big differences between the last game is that Sexton is starting instead of ROG. This means that the Welsh plan of giving ROG space to run and cutting down options because ROG can't run and just gets turned over won't work and also it means that the weakness in the 10 channel in defence won't be there.

    From an Irish perspective having Heaslip fully fit and having POM/D Ryan on the bench will also help massively

  • Comment number 17.

    Should be the game of the weekend this one. Shaping up to be an interesting tournament, France looked sharp, England looked brave (although as Jiffy pointed out post-match they'll need better possesion than 40% to win again!).

    To my mind, nullifying O'Brien is the key to Welsh success and then putting pressure on D'arcy, as he's always less than comfortable in internationals without BOD outside him.

    I think Ireland will do a Munster, mess around in the first half, then keep it tight and win with a drop goal on the 79th minute!

  • Comment number 18.

    @4. The answer is very simple, even for am Englishman like me. No.

    IMO the IRB world player of the year for the next five years will be a shootout between Pocock and Warburton. He has come back from the world cup and got even better for the blues in the HC. Scary...

    As for today I think home advantage and Lydiate being injured should be enough to get Ireland over the line. The only thing they may lack is the self-belief which has sometimes been their achilles heel but I think they should have enough to win today. Should be a humdinger though!

  • Comment number 19.

    It seems the consensus is that Wales are weakened with the loss of the four front fives - which is a hit of course. However, the four replacements are no bunch of fairies either. Bradley Davies will add a steel, as will Evans who adds athleticism. The name not being mentioned at all it Rhys Gill, which is an injustice. This guy is one to watch. He will add a grit and aggression that is needed in Dublin - I think a few eyebrows will be raised. Also, Ryan Jones is continually written off. I believe he's reinvented himself in recent years - a completely different player to the one we saw in New Zealand 2005 when he emerged as a barnstorming 6/8 not disimilar to O'Brien. He's the guy all teams need - doing the unseen as per Richard Hill who was Englands most important (and missed player when not playing) in 2003.

    If Wales can get this 'parity' or dare say it dominance up front which is not inconceivable, Ireland could have a long afternoon by the looks of this Welsh backline! It could become evident how important BOD is to Ireland; Roberts, North and co will not have had a sleepless night at the prospect of a Sexton, Darcy and McFadden defensive line. The excellent Irish backrow will have their work cut out in defence.

  • Comment number 20.

    It's going to be a game of unbelievable physicality.

    It Ireland get on top early I think they'll go on to win it and maybe with something to spare.

    If Wales can withstand the early Irish onslaught and stand firm and go into the second half - just behind, even or ahead then I think Wales win it.

    It's really about weathering the undoubted early pressure for Wales, if they can do that, then I think without O'Driscoll as well - Ireland could start to crack a little bit second half.

  • Comment number 21.

    @19 - Have you seen Sexton or McFadden defend? Both are powerful defenders.

  • Comment number 22.

    Wales having such huge, physical and pacy backs can overall possibly even things up physically if they can get them into the game enough and commit them when needed defending.

  • Comment number 23.

    This, along with the breakdown, will be critical in determining the outcome of the game.

    Ireland, understandably are expected to dominate up front, and whilst i expect them to be the better pack, i don't think its going to be half as one-sided as a lot believe.

    The likes of Davies, Evans and Faletau give Wales good dog and go forward as well as Owens off the bench and I think should hold their own, certainly a lot more than is being predicted.

 

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