Wales v Ireland - teams and prediction
PREVIEW ROUND ONE: Warren Gatland said he wanted to make Wales fans “proud” of their team when they launch their Six Nations campaign at home to Ireland on Saturday.
The opening round of the tournament follows the fallout over the sexism and discrimination allegations that have rocked the Welsh Rugby Union.
Claims of a “toxic culture” at the Welsh Rugby Union were aired in a television documentary last week, resulting in the resignation of chief executive Steve Phillips on Sunday.
A match against the world’s top-ranked side would have been a tough enough way in itself for Gatland to launch his second spell as Wales coach, but the New Zealander has now found himself plunged into an extraordinary crisis for the Welsh game as a whole.
“Last week, there was only one topic of discussion, which was understandable,” said Gatland.
He added: “We’ve got a lot to do to get some real support from the Welsh public and we will go a long way to doing that by giving them a really strong performance and hopefully making the fans proud.”
Gatland has returned to replace fellow Kiwi Wayne Pivac after a poor 2022 for Wales in which they lost at home for the first time to both Italy and Georgia and won only three of their 12 internationals.
This match will bridge a gap dating back to 2019, when Gatland’s Wales beat Ireland 25-7 in Cardiff to complete his third Grand Slam in 12 years.
No fewer than eight of that starting Wales XV are back on duty for Gatland.
Wales suffered a setback when Leigh Halfpenny dropped out Thursday due to a back spasm, with British and Irish Lions fullback Liam Williams taking his place.
Ireland has picked a familiar-looking team, based heavily on the unbeaten Leinster side of this season.
Veteran flyhalf Johnny Sexton is fit to lead the team, but Lions tighthead prop Tadgh Furlong has been ruled out.
Finlay Bealham will start in Furlong’s place, the Connacht man being one of only five non-Leinster players in the starting XV.
Ireland climbed to the summit of the world rankings following a 2-1 series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand last year, before toppling the world champion Springboks and Australia at home in November.
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But they have lost on their last four visits to Cardiff in the Six Nations and the ‘Gatland Effect’ could yet be in evidence again this weekend.
“We want to do well, but we have to think long-term about the next seven or eight months in terms of the development of guys who haven’t had much Test rugby and how we get them ready for the World Cup in France,” he said.
“The only expectation is the one we put on ourselves. We know how good a team they [Ireland] are – you don’t become the number one team in the world without consistency.
“They have a lot of players from Leinster and they’re one of the form teams in world club rugby with their consistency and success.
“We realise what a challenge it will be, and they have the continuity of being unbeaten in the Autumn as well and the confidence that brings.”
Gatland, a master of mind games, suggested the difference in form between the two sides meant all the pressure was on Ireland, with this match a “free-hit” for Wales.
But Ireland counterpart Andy Farrell was having none of it.
“A free shot in Test match rugby? Where do you get them from? We’d love to be able to buy one of those,” said Farrell.
“Maybe I’ll buy him [Gatland] a free shot after the game,” he added with a grin.
Players to watch
For Wales: The late withdrawal of Leigh Halfpenny will have been a disruption, but in Liam Williams, they have a quality player with merited British and Irish Lions credentials. in the midfield 20-year-old centre Joe Hawkins is set for a Six Nations debut alongside Ospreys teammate George North, after being preferred to Saracens’ Nick Tompkins. The back row of Jac Morgan – who has scored four tries in his last two Tests – Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau is also worth watching. Veteran former skipper Alun Wyn Jones partners Adam Beard at lock, with Wales now led by Scarlets hooker Ken Owens.
For Ireland: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey will fill the vacuum left by injured centre Robbie Henshaw for the world’s No.1 ranked number side. Ireland coach Andy Farrell has kept faith with McCloskey after he featured in all three year-end Tests last November – the 30-year-old will partner Garry Ringrose with Bundee Aki on the bench. Johnny Sexton has recovered from the cheekbone injury he suffered last month and will captain the side in what will be his 110th Test. The 37-year-old flyhalf will be partnered at halfback by his Leinster team-mate Jamison Gibson-Park. Tadhg Furlong misses out due to a calf injury – the British and Irish Lions prop has been bedevilled by fitness problems and has played just over half an hour of rugby since the November Tests. Australia-born Finlay Bealham replaces Furlong in the starting line-up.
Head to head
@rugby365com: Ireland by nine points
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Josh Adams, 13 George North, 12 Joe Hawkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Tomos William, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Jac Morgan, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Gareth Thomas..
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Dafydd Jenkins, 20 Tommy Reffell, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Alex Cuthbert.
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 James Lowe, 10 Jonathan Sexton (captain), 9 Jamison Gibson Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Bundee Aki.
Date: Saturday, February 4
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 14.15 (14.15 GMT)
Expected weather: The roof will be closed. High of 9°C and a low of 4°C
Referee: Karl Dickson (England)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia) & Luke Pearce (England )
TMO: Tom Foley (England)