furlong wales 2022
Traditionally, you knew an Irish team with a lot of emotion and fire in the belly was going to be difficult to beat.

Now, it’s like they don’t even need that emotion because the level they can play at - and comfortably - is so efficient, it’s almost workmanlike. It used to be that New Zealand were always the best team in the world because their front-five forwards were so good with the ball, where now Ireland’s are probably the best at that.

They’ve got the foundation of a powerful pack and an effective set-piece, but then you complement that with their handling skills and it gives them different avenues to develop their attack. For example, Ireland can now regularly use their forwards as ballplayers - getting Josh van der Flier or Caelan Doris on the ball, for starters, but even a prop like Tadhg Furlong has great hands, drawing in defenders and then putting the pass out the back. Everyone’s at a level with their skills that allows them to play at a pace and an intensity that’s hard for the opposition to live with.

They’re explosive with and without the ball, in fact, and their defensive abilities cannot be underestimated. It used to be that it was all about stopping the Irish attack, but their defence is so good now. You saw how they made a very talented French team look pretty average, and I think the fact that they nilled Italy hasn’t been talked about enough: that rarely happens in international rugby today.

That defensive cohesion is credit to Simon Easterly and what he’s doing in that area of their game. Simon was my first captain at Scarlets and you can see how his qualities as a player - extreme discipline, hard-working, giving everything to the cause - have transferred to Ireland. These boys just love defending and putting in big shots, to the point where they’re attacking teams with their defence.

The Scarlets-Ireland connection doesn’t end there, with my old clubmate Tadhg Beirne a world-class presence in their second row. He was released from Leinster and joined us in 2016, and what he brought to the club was incredible. The best way I can describe him is that he’s one of the best Moneyball signings we’ve ever seen in Welsh rugby. All the boys still view him as one of the greatest they’ve ever played with. Such a talent, with a great feel for the game, and always in the right place at the right time, which doesn’t come by chance. He’s a brilliant man off the field too.

Fly-half Sam Costelow, a current teammate of mine in West Wales, is the only change to Wales’ starting XV this weekend. The nature of Sam as a player - his commitment, his endeavour - is such that you want to give everything for him. His tackling ability is outsized in comparison to his stature: he will go low and chop anyone down. He’s fully committed to everything, and from a young age he’s had a lot of responsibility put on him, but he’s actually grown under that and become a much better player for it.

In Warren Gatland’s first game in charge of Wales, he selected 13 players in his starting XV from the Ospreys, who were one of the best sides in the league at that time. They beat England at Twickenham, which Wales hadn’t done in 20 years. I mention that game because it goes some of the way to explaining the success Ireland have had with their predominance of Leinster players. They’ll have ten Leinster players in their starting line-up on Saturday (and 15 in their match day squad), and that familiarity helps you take things up a notch. The quality they have on and off the field at club and international level is such an asset to Ireland’s fortunes.

I played in some great games against Ireland, and always enjoyed going out to Dublin. I’ve mentioned before how much energy I got from the hostility and passion in the crowd. Welsh supporters love going out there too. You can’t beat the famous Irish hospitality. When we won there in 2012 it was the start of something special for us as a team, going on to win the Grand Slam. It was a difficult game for me personally because my grandfather had passed away two days before, so being able to win and score two tries means that day will always have a place in my heart.

I hope the boys back their natural ability against Ireland on Saturday and just go out there and play. The team feels pretty settled after the last couple of weeks. There haven’t been too many changes, so that little bit of time together might allow them to create more opportunities against one of the best teams in the world game.