Hopes of Wales winning an unprecedented third successive Six Nations crown could stand or fall on the Aviva Stadium outcome. Wales boast a two-year unbeaten away record in the tournament and they have lost just one of their last 11 championship games – against Ireland in Cardiff last season. There is also a bubbling sub-plot of Ireland talisman Brian O’Driscoll facing a team coached by Warren Gatland for the first time since the 2013 British and Irish Lions boss controversially omitted the centre from a Test series decider against Australia seven months ago.
And with both teams claiming victories last weekend, it means that title aspirations will be on the line in front of a capacity crowd hoping to witness an epic Six Nations tussle.
“There is pressure on us,” said Wales prop Jenkins, who has recovered from a knee injury and returns to win his 102nd cap. “Everyone knows that teams are coming for us. Teams are going to be looking to knock us off our perch. Ireland are going to be fired up, and we have got to match that and show how good we are, really. It comes with our success over the last two years. Going into the decider last year [against England], I don’t think too many expected us to win the way we did.
“That is the pressure we put on ourselves to win the title, so I suppose the same is the case this year. We have put the pressure on ourselves. It’s different to the first five or so years when I was first involved [with Wales]. You always felt you had a chance going into a game, but you’ve got belief. It’s a big change in mentality. We’ve had some bad experiences, and come through them, such as that 2011 World Cup semi-final [against France]. Obviously, losing big games has an effect on you, but I think we have learnt from those experiences.”
Wales have beaten Ireland in three of the past four meetings, including a 2011 World Cup quarter-final triumph, yet O’Driscoll and company are eminently capable of marching towards Twickenham to face England in two weeks’ time with a Triple Crown on offer. Jenkins has played plenty of times against Ireland, highlighted by his try-scoring exploits in the 2005 Grand Slam game that Wales won, to know what can be expected this weekend.
“It has always been pretty tight between us,” he added. “Virtually every game, there seems to be just one score in it. Under their new coach [Joe Schmidt], and just from their performances in the autumn Tests, we know they’re going to be just as good. They are one of the big challengers to us for the championship, and that’s where you raise your game. We’ve always been a bit slow starting, so we know we will have to raise our game again on Saturday if we are to get a victory.” Jenkins also paid a glowing tribute to O’Driscoll, who is set for his final appearance against Wales before retiring at the end of this season. “He is a great guy,” Jenkins added. “I’ve been on three [Lions] tours with him and got on really well with him. He cut us to shreds last season, and he knows the game inside out and is a great player. I’ve enjoyed playing against him, but hopefully we can keep him quiet this weekend and he doesn’t cause too much trouble.”
Ireland’s Lions contingent worked closely and at length with Wales boss Gatland during the summer tour Down Under, unearthing his most trusted coaching methods and styles of play.
Leinster loose forward Jamie Heaslip was part of the squad which clinched Test series victory over Australia but he is adamant Gatland has kept some secrets close to his chest, to be unleashed for his Wales side in the Six Nations.
“I’m sure ‘Gats’ hasn’t shown his full hand, across the summer and even into the tournament now,” said Heaslip. “Their lads have played enough against Joe [Schmidt] through club rugby when he was Leinster boss I suppose, to get a taste of what he could be like. But they are not playing against Joe as such, they are playing against our lads. It will have a bearing, and perhaps they could gain an advantage from it. But we’ve just got to be mindful of them producing something different. And it’s over to us, ultimately. We’re under no illusions what we’re up against.
“They’ve won the championship two years on the hop now. It’s definitely going to be a physical game.”
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O’Connell (Munster, capt), P O’Mahony (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Subs: S Cronin (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster), D Tuohy (Ulster), T O’Donnell (Munster), I Boss (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster).
Wales: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Scarlets), J Roberts (Racing Metro), G North (Northampton); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Racing Metro); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), R Hibbard (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), A Coombs (Newport Gwent Dragons), A-W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Racing Metro), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons). Subs: K Owens (Scarlets), P James (Bath), R Jones (Scarlets), J Ball (Scarlets), J Tipuric (Ospreys), R Webb (Ospreys), J Hook (Perpignan), L Williams (Scarlets).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).