Rugby World Cup worries loom for Wales ahead of Ireland game
With its Six Nations title ambitions over, Wales has longer-term concerns to consider.
The next Rugby World Cup is 2 1/2 years away but it is suddenly looming large for the Welsh after a run of eight losses in its last 13 internationals, two of which have come in the Six Nations against England and Scotland.
Wales has slumped to No. 7 in the World Rugby rankings and could plunge to ninth place with losses to Ireland in Cardiff on Friday and in France on the final weekend. That would mean going into the draw for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in May out of the top-eight seeds and facing the prospect of playing two top rivals in the pool stage.
The same happened four years ago, and the Welsh were pitted against England and Australia in the 2015 draw.
For Rob Howley — in interim charge of Wales while Warren Gatland concentrates on British and Irish Lions issues — he is thinking short term.
"We expect a reaction on Friday night," Howley said on Wednesday, saying "fine margins" have made the difference in a 21-16 loss to England in Round 2 and a 29-13 defeat in Scotland in Round 3.
Howley has resisted calls to make changes — notably, bringing in Sam Davies for Dan Biggar at flyhalf — and selected an unchanged team, despite a poor second half at Murrayfield when the Scots scored 20 unanswered points.
"We discussed giving the opportunity to the side to redeem themselves," Howley said.
For Ireland, the match is about about staying in title contention after consecutive victories over Italy and France, and potentially setting up a winner-takes-all finale against England in Dublin next week.
The Irish are in second place and three points behind England, which hosts third-place Scotland on Saturday.
Wales is fourth.
"They are so used to competing on the last day of the championship, to win or lose the championship," Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said. "So for them not to be in that position will certainly provide extra motivation for them."
Ireland has won four of its last six matches in Cardiff, but its Grand Slam hopes foundered in a loss in the Welsh capital two years ago. On its last visit to the ground now known as Principality Stadium, Ireland was thrashed by Argentina in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals in 2015.
Ireland matched Wales in picking an unchanged run-on side. Unlike Wales, Ireland tinkered with its reserves with winger Andrew Trimble (broken hand) replaced by Tommy Bowe.
And it's on the wing where Ireland may get some joy. Wales' narrow defence has been criticized this week — even by its own defence coach, Shaun Edwards — after conceding tries on both flanks against England and Scotland.
"They were individual mistakes because they didn't do what they practiced in the buildup to the game," Edwards said, in pointed reference to winger George North. "They decided to do what they wanted and not what the rest of their teammates expected them to do."
Ireland will have the final say over whether the stadium roof remains open or closed for Friday's game. Wales wants it closed.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Jake Ball, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Rob Evans. Reserves: Scott Baldwin, Nicky Smith, Samson Lee, Luke Charteris, Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Davies, Sam Davies, Jamie Roberts.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Jack McGrath. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, Kieran Marmion, Paddy Jackson, Tommy Bowe.