Wales v Ireland - Teams and Predictions
SIX NATIONS ROUND ONE: Ireland face Wales on Sunday hoping for their first Six Nations victory in Cardiff for eight years but up against a team desperate to make amends for a terrible campaign in 2020.
Andy Farrell’s men travel to the Welsh capital boosted by four straight wins over their opponents but seeking to improve on last year’s disappointing third-place finish in the Championship.
Wales suffered a major fall from grace in 2020 – finishing fifth in the table under new coach Wayne Pivac after winning the Grand Slam the previous year.
Coaches under pressure
“It is a huge game for both teams, and will be a war of attrition,” is how Ireland coach Farrell assessed Sunday’s clash.
Farrell may not have received an A-plus for his first year in charge but the man under more intense pressure is Wales counterpart Pivac.
The New Zealander’s honeymoon period after taking over from compatriot Warren Gatland was short — Wales won just three times in 10 outings last year.
Pivac will be looking for a significant improvement for the team, who were World Cup semi-finalists in 2019 under Gatland.
“For us within the Welsh camp, it’s one that we’re looking forward to because we want to be better than we were last year, clearly,” said Pivac.
“We need to be.”
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The O’Connell factor
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton said this week that a new face could shake things up in the camp.
He will hope the arrival of Irish great Paul O’Connell to coach the forwards proves his point.
One of O’Connell’s key tasks will be improving the line-out, which let the side down last year.
Sexton, one of several players still in the side who played when Connell captained Ireland, said the former lock had already had a “great impact.”
“He was selfless as a captain — everything he did was with the team in mind and it is the same now as a coach,” said the skipper.
The 41-year-old former Munster player hopes being honest with his former team-mates will prevent any tensions creeping into their relationships.
Sexton said the players must keep their side of the bargain.
“We have to go out and show we are able to put into practice what he (O’Connell) said,” the fly-half explained.
Sexton and Jones – heart and soul
Captains Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones are both 35 but they still set the tone for their teams through their words and actions on the pitch.
Sexton embarks on his 12th Six Nations campaign after shaking off his latest injury while Jones is returning from a serious knee problem.
Both sides will hope their talismen stay on for long enough to influence the outcome in a match-up that has proved feisty in recent years.
Sexton, the 2018 world player of the year, is still relishing the role of captaincy.
“I would hate not to be doing it, that’s the right way of putting it,” he said.
Farrell is in no doubt the role has fitted him perfectly, even if Sexton was criticised last year for showing his displeasure at being replaced in the Six Nations defeat by France.
“He’s got more subtleties into the leadership aspect of his game which I think is going to benefit his game in general as well,” said Farrell.
Jones, who has a world-record 152 Test caps, including his outings for the British and Irish Lions, is set for his first game since suffering a knee injury in early December.
The lock is still regarded as a key figure in Pivac’s Wales set-up and they need him fit and firing.
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Players to watch:
For Wales: Ospreys flank Dan Lydiate will make his first start for Wales since November 2018. The veteran makes up an all British & Irish Lions back row – alongside Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau. Captain Alun Wyn Jones, who will partner the returning Adam Beard in the second row, is always a vital cog in the team setup. In the backline, Tomos Williams will make his first appearance since last year’s tournament after injury and partners Dan Biggar at halfback. Johnny Williams partners George North in the centre, with North winning his 99th Wales cap.
For Ireland: Johnny Sexton will captain the side as he competes in his 12th Six Nations championship. He is joined in the halfbacks by Conor Murray. James Lowe, Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier are all chosen to start. n the pack, the front row is along expected lines, Cian Healy making his 50th championship appearance and being joined by Rob Herring and Andrew Porter.
Head to head:
There are intriguing face-offs all over the park, However, one of the key battles will be at flyhalf, with Jonny Sexton of Ireland and Dan Biggar of Wales, both having a big point to prove. The midfield will see George North and Johnny Williams of Wales face Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw of Ireland. In the pack, Taulupe Faletau has to be in fine form as goes head to head with South African-born CJ Stander.
Last 10 encounters
@rugby365com: Ireland by seven points
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Louis Rees-Zammit, 13 George North, 12 Johnny Williams, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Josh Navidi, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Callum Sheedy, 23 Nick Tompkins.
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Jonathan Sexton (captain), 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Will Connors, 21 Jamison Gibson Park, 22 Billy Burns, 23 Jordan Larmour.
Date: Sunday, February 7
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 15.00 (15.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Very cold and cloudy with a high of 3°C, low of -1°C
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Alex Ruiz (France)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)
* Additional reporting by @rugby365com