Six Nations 2018: Ireland v Wales - Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell to combine

Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki formed Ireland's centre partnership during the Novemeber series win against Argentina
Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki formed Ireland's centre partnership in the November series win against Argentina
Six Nations: Ireland v Wales
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday, 24 February Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio Ulster & BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary.

Lost amid the drama of Johnny Sexton's drop goal in Paris and the eight-try blitz of Italy has been the evolution of Ireland's style of play during this year's Six Nations.

It is less than a year since Eddie Jones was goading Joe Schmidt about Ireland's "kick and clap" tactics before the demise of their Grand Slam bid in Dublin.

In reality, Ireland have been developing a more controlled approach under Schmidt, which has been borne out during the first two rounds of the championship.

Ireland have dominated both territory and possession in their two matches so far.

They enjoyed 68% possession at the Stade de France and owned the ball for 63% of their win against Italy at the Aviva Stadium.

No other team has managed over 60% possession in the opening two rounds and, consequently, no side has been able to match the number of passes logged by Ireland - 250 passes in Paris and 246 in Dublin (the only other team to break the 200 mark was Wales, with 224 against England).

In terms of 'kick and clap', Ireland are fourth - behind Wales, England and France - in terms of the amount of times they have kicked the ball in play.

The change of approach for Ireland is best demonstrated by the increasing responsibility of their centres to act as ball carriers and playmakers, which makes the loss of Robbie Henshaw even more pronounced for the country's coaching staff.

Henshaw was in scintillating form against Italy before damaging his shoulder in the act of scoring his second try - he had made 89 metres from just nine carries against the Azzurri.

In the absence of his centre partner, Bundee Aki is now crucial to Ireland's championship prospects.

The Connacht back, 27, has carried the ball 30 times in the opening two matches of the Six Nations, the highest of any back in the championship and second only to redoubtable forward CJ Stander (37) in the overall rankings.

Ireland's globe-trotting centres

Aki is Ireland's leading ball-carrying back in the 2018 Six Nations
Aki is Ireland's leading ball-carrying back in the 2018 Six Nations

The New Zealand-born centre moved to Connacht in 2014 after he was approached by current Bristol head coach Pat Lam and he was an instant success - winning the player of the season award as the province won the Pro12 title in 2016.

He qualified to represent Ireland on residency grounds last year and only made his Test debut against South Africa in November.

Schmidt, however, had been in contact with him from the very beginning of his time in Galway as he helped to mentor a player he clearly believed could contribute to the national team.

Although he has quickly developed into a crucial playmaker outside Sexton and Conor Murray, Aki's distribution remains an area he needs to develop. He has completed 19 passes so far in the championship, which pales in comparison to Owen Farrell (37) and Hadleigh Parkes (28), who play in the same position.

His likely centre partner against Wales will be Chris Farrell after the pair combined well together in the win against Argentina in the November series.

Farrell, too, has had to follow a meandering route into the Ireland camp.

The former Ulster academy centre was raised in Fivemiletown in County Tyrone, an area better known for its cheese making than its rugby players, but he quickly rose through the ranks before making his senior debut for the province as a teenager in 2011.

A combination of injuries and Ulster's embarrassment of riches in the centre forced the then 21-year-old Farrell to seek opportunities elsewhere as he joined Bernard Jackman's Grenoble project where he made over 70 appearances in three seasons.

"I took a bit of a detour to get here," Farrell told BBC Sport after his Ireland debut against Fiji in November.

"I went around the world, went to France, but it was always in my goals to come back and hopefully get a chance to play at this level and thankfully that's happened.

"I was very young at the time and my move to Grenoble was purely to try and get game time and experience as well as grow as a player in a way that I would come back confident and able to step up to this level."

Similar to Aki in Galway, Farrell remained in contact with Schmidt even while he was outside the national set-up and once the centre joined Munster at the beginning of this season he was quickly invited into the Irish squad.

"Throughout the three years I kept in touch with Joe and other people back in Ireland, and he reviewed a few of my games in France and gave me stuff to work on," added Farrell, who will now get another chance to show what he has learned.

Aki and Farrell have a combined total of six Test caps between them, which inevitably means there will be some risk in pairing them in an area that is of increased importance to Ireland this season.

However, as Schmidt's team continues its gradual evolution, the new midfield combination that will face Wales will already be well briefed in what is expected of them.

It is just another powerful example of how the Ireland head coach's legendary attention to detail is coming to fruition.

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