Ireland against Wales is a replay of the World Cup quarter-final but it wouldn’t surprise me if we had a reversal of the result. Don’t let anyone tell you that rugby is not a curiously psychological game. I suspect that Ireland’s defeat in Wellington will help them beat Wales in Dublin.
Of course, the absence of Brian O’Driscoll will take some getting used to, for the fans as well as the players. But there is much to like about Ireland. Conor Murray, the new scrum-half, is a big physical presence who brings a threat that they have missed in recent years.
The improvement in the scrummage is another big factor. Teams used to target the Irish scrum, but they gave Australia a bath in the World Cup and they will probably give Wales a problem or too as well.
Ireland have real potency in the back row, they have backs who can finish, they have two going on three dominant regional teams. They have the ability but maybe they haven’t always believed it. Wales at home and France in Paris are two big games to open with, but they will be a good test of Ireland’s state of mind without O’Driscoll.
But we know Wales will be competitive. In recent years sides had got used to how they played and they knew what to expect. Wales played the same way from game to game. But 2011 was a refreshing year for Wales and they were far more flexible.
Rhys Priestland looks built for test rugby. He never got fazed and they missed the young fly-half in the semi-final defeat. Missed goal kicks have haunted Wales in some big recent defeats and Priestland looks like he fancies the job, when others have feared it.
The young captain Sam Warburton looks like another who has his head in the right place. He is respected, he leads by example, loose forward is in the heart of the action and is the right place to captain the side.
Wales have game breakers like Geeoge North, two big centres who can bust the line, three good young loosies. They have their best opportunity in a long time to be one of the world’s best teams, but they have to get past this habit of throwing away games.
They were clearly the better team in their pool games against South Africa but they didn’t finish it. There have been numerous other examples in recent years. Too often they find the way to lose, either through yellow cards, silly penalties, missed kicks or poor decisions. That has to change.
Ireland and Wales have proved in recent times that a lot of rugby is played in the head. They both need to get smarter.