IRELAND host Wales on Sunday at the Aviva Stadium knowing that whoever wins this weekend can look forward to the rest of their Six Nations campaign, whereas the loser will drop into the also-ran category.
The likelihood is that Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac are effectively playing for their jobs this weekend. You would imagine that at least three wins are required for both, with this fixture being eyed by both as essential in that respect.
The Welsh Six Nations triumphs of 2008, 2012 and 2019 all seemed to come from nowhere. You could argue that only in their 2013 win when they successfully defended their trophy, did they triumph when expected to.
Under Warren Gatland Wales always were the ultimate momentum team. One win, sometimes in unlikely circumstances, like coming back from the dead two years ago in Paris after being 16-0 down at half-time, can spark them. Once they get one confidence-building win under their belts then they are very difficult to stop.
Right now they are crying out for one of those confidence-inducing victories, and Andy Farrell’s Ireland side would appear to be sitting perfectly in wait in Dublin on Sunday for a typical Welsh ambush.
It is really hard to see how Wales can win this weekend, but it is worth reminding ourselves that they were Grand Slam champions more recently than we were, when they did it in 2019, a year after Joe Schmidt led Ireland to the same feat.
It was a truly disastrous first year in charge of Wales for coach Wayne Pivac, however, who found that the task of replacing the departed Warren Gatland was a monumental one.
In the whole of 2020, Wales only won three matches out of ten, with those three victories coming in two games against hapless Italy and another against a poor Georgian side. They have to go all the way back to the World Cup in Japan in 2019 for their last win over a top nation when they defeated France 20-19 in the quarter-final. The fall from the cliff since that point has been unrelenting.
Wales currently look underpowered in the tight five, where they remain overly reliant on 34-year-old hooker Ken Owens and the 35-year-old talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones in the second row. One area where they will require a big step up in performance levels in this tournament will be in the productivity of their props, as currently none of them look to be Lions standard.
In the back row they are badly in need of new blood, and leadership, as well. In that respect, they will be hoping for a big tournament from Dragon No. 8 Aaron Wainwright, who has already acquired 27 caps despite being only 23 years old, but the fact remains that they are still turning to Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau in 2021, when all seem to have their best years behind them. Pivac will certainly be hoping for an Indian summer for this group.
They have Lions standard talent in the backline but the loss of Liam Williams to suspension is huge, and the breaking story over the past two days that their brilliant left-wing Josh Adams, who was the top try scorer at the 2019 World Cup, has been removed from the Welsh squad for breaching Covid-19 protocols after he attended a family gathering on Sunday, is huge.
Losing this pair should be fatal to Wales, who are now hoping for someone to bolt from the blue, such as 20-year old winger Louis Rees-Zammit, to inject some life into the Principality.
Can captain Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray turn back the clock and lead Ireland to one last assault at Six Nations glory? Whatever about their birth certs, the main barometer has to be the form guide, which has little evidence of late to suggest that they are still up to this level. So, speaking of Indian summers, one is certainly required for Ireland’s half-backs.
The loss of Caelan Doris in the back row is a huge one, as suddenly Ireland are under threat of being underpowered here, with only CJ Stander now as a reliable go-to ball carrier. At international level that is not enough.
One of the key aspects on Sunday will be in terms of how well James Lowe continues to integrate and in how much improvement we see from Jacob Stockdale at full-back. If they combine and hit form then the sky could be the limit for Andy Farrell’s side.