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Crunch tie for Ireland

Thursday, 9th March, 2017 1:00am

Second in the table and two games left to play, but the hard work for Ireland starts now.

A shock defeat to Scotland on the opening weekend of the championship, two wins over Italy and France since, Ireland has just two hurdles to jump before they can capture the Six Nations trophy once again after last seson’s disappointing fourth place finish. Hopping those two hurdles, not matter how high the spring in Ireland’s step, will be quite the challenge.

This Friday, they travel to take on Wales, but not just any Welsh side – it’s a hurt Welsh side – so double the trouble.

A 16-21 loss to England, followed by a dismal 29-13 loss to Scotland, only Italy count for Wales’ solitary win in the competition so far. A packed Millenium Stadium under lights on Friday night and a Welsh side not just looking, but needing, to make an almighty impact, the stage is set for a cracking encounter.

A stuttering start, yes, but Ireland are slowly clmbing up the gears and a win over Wales would put them in a prime position ahead of next weekend’s final tie against leaders England and, in all likelihood, a loss to Wales will see Ireland’s Six Nation’s hopes all but over.

The cream, they say, always rises to the top and no better way of describing Conor Murray’s importance to his national side. The 27 year old’s name is now being batted around as a possibile Lions captain contender; is there any Irish player as dependable and as in-form as the scrum-half from Limerick is right now?

Speaking ahead of the Welsh clash Murray sais he is “just doing as good a job as I can for my team”.

He continued: “The aim for yourself personally is to play well and I’m happy with where my game is at at the moment and how I’m contributing to the team. You’re only as good as your last game and this weekend is going to be really different. It’s going to be really challenging so, just because the last week went well for you, you really have to stay task-focused and focus on what’s ahead for you. It’s a big challenge against the Welsh team but...where I am this season, I’m happy with how I’m playing.”

As for Friday night? It has yet to be confirmed if the famous Millenium Stadium roof will remain open or clsed for the game but Murray says regardless of circumstances, he and the team are itching for kick-off.

“We’d a few games there with the roof closed, couple of late kick-offs as well. It’s very exciting, it’s one of my favourite stadiums to go to. The atmosphere is going to be incredible and the travelling support is going to be unreal, everyone’s aware that it’s such a big game, it’s a massive opportunity.

“These are the weeks you want to be involved in the squad and in the team and everyone is chomping at the bit this week. They’re at home, it’s their number one sport, they’re going to have a packed stadium, they’re going to be really fired up for this game and then once the whistle goes, it’s a test match again. You are aware of the circumstances but a test match alone is hard enough to win, so they’ll be really up for it.”

Forwards coach Simon Easterby says that Ireland will be well able for Millenium Stadium, regardless of its state of dress.

“We’ve had it both ways; we’ve had it opened and we’ve had it closed – we had it closed in the World Cup and the players enjoyed that, and we’ve had it opened and closed when we’ve played Wales in the last few years. It’s important that it’s not a distraction.”

As for Wales’ poor run of form in the competition, Easterby doesn’t believe the side are far off one massive performance.

“They were, in large parts, the better team against England and they potentially should have won the game and closed it out. They were the better team for long periods against Scotland as well. They are certainly not very far away from being at their best.

“They are dangerous; whether they’re on a winning streak, or whether they’ve lost a couple of games, they’re a dangerous side right throughout the team. Our players are well aware of them, they play against them week in and week out in PRO12 and European Rugby but there’s also a lot of players that have experience against them in the national jersey, so there’s lots of familiarity with that.

“I think that doesn’t breed contempt, that breeds a lot of respect but also a lot of intensity and there’s a massive will to go out there on the weekend and we know how hard it is in Cardiff. We came unstuck there two years ago and they came to Dublin last year and we drew 16-16, so we know how difficult it’s going to be. Regardless of what stage they’re at in terms of their progression and development, the championship goes out the window when you know you’re going to Cardiff and you know you’re playing against a quality group of players.”

Ahead of the weekend Ireland are on 10 points while England, with three wins from three, are on 13. Kick-off against Wales on Friday is at 8.05pm, while England play Scotland on Saturday with kick-off at 4pm.

That game is preceded by Italy vs France at 2.30pm.

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