Ireland seek Wales stepping stone for England Six Nations showdown

Luke PHILLIPS
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Ireland's fly-half Jonathan Sexton a star of the Lions' victorious tour of Australia four years ago, has been tipped to be the combined side's first-choice No.10 in New Zealand

Ireland will attempt to set up an audacious bid for Six Nations glory over frontrunners England when they face Wales on Friday.

A victory for Joe Schmidt's team, allied with an English win over the ever-improving Scotland side on Saturday, would make for a mouth-watering Six Nations title decider in Dublin on March 18.

But Ireland's games with Wales are notoriously close, and it would be a brave person to rule out a Welsh team, albeit misfiring, playing at home with pressure on to assure a top-eight World Rugby ranking for the draw for the 2019 World Cup and also to shine in a bid to help guarantee spots on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer.

The Irish kicked off their Six Nations campaign with a surprise defeat by Scotland before bouncing back to beat Italy and France.

Wales overcame the Italians before slumping to defeats by England and Scotland, and find themselves contemplating a third consecutive Six Nations loss for the first time since 2007.

Both teams are unchanged for the Friday night fixture at the Principality Stadium, Rob Howley's decision not to blood some younger Welsh players in place of more experienced but underperforming stars raising eyebrows.

"As coaches, we discussed giving the opportunity to the side to redeem themselves for the second-half performance against Scotland," Howley said.

"Obviously, I know things have been said in the week about some players' performance. But as a coaching team, we have talked about the opportunity just to go out again.

"There is an opportunity to go out at home in front of our own supporters and deliver a performance which the players are proud of and for the supporters to support that. It will be a huge game."

- No targeting of North -

Wales winger George North experienced perhaps his worst game for his country against Scotland, when the Welsh shipped 20 unanswered points in a woeful second-half showing.

But Ireland coach Schmidt insisted his team would not be targeting the giant Northampton flyer.

"What could be a bad day one day for a player can quickly become a good one next time out," the New Zealander said.

"I think he will have a big one this time, unfortunately.

"And I'm sure he's highly motivated to have a really good game, as are the rest of the Welsh XV.

"They are so used to competing on the last day of the championship to win or lose the championship.

"So for them not to be in that position will certainly provide extra motivation for them."

Wales have won just four of their last 12 matches - a run stretching back to last year's Six Nations and including a defeat to Waikato Chiefs: the victories came over Italy, Japan, a season-weary Argentina and a disintegrating South Africa.

"In sport, sometimes fine margins make a huge difference and we need to get on the positive side of them. We expect a reaction on Friday night," said Howley, in interim charge in the absence of the Lions-seconded Warren Gatland.

"The challenge for us is to make sure we deliver a performance this week.

"Every player has a point to prove when you pull the national jersey on. That's the challenge of international rugby. It's about handling the pressure from one minute to 80 minutes. That's the challenge for all of us."