Let me start by clarifying that if you’re looking for yet another repeat of a tiresome O’Driscoll and Gatland commentary then this preview won’t be for you. This is not O’Driscoll v Gatland, it is Ireland v Wales, perennial underachievers v Grand Slam specialists, and a renewal of the most captivating Six Nations rivalry in recent years.
Rant over, on with Saturday’s game.
With Paul O’Connell fit to resume the captaincy in the second-row after his chest infection, Joe Schmidt’s only selection dilemma was at inside centre where the Irish coach opted to restore Gordon D’Arcy to the starting line-up at the expense of Luke Marshall.
Neither Luke Fitzgerald nor Eoin Reddan have recovered from their respective injuries meaning a back three combination of Kearney, Trimble and Kearney will face the threat imposed by a dangerous Welsh three-quarters attack.
Brian O’Driscoll is paired with D’Arcy for a record 53rd time in their international careers, but we’d be surprised if Fergus McFadden isn’t called upon in what should be a brutally physical encounter. If the weather isn’t kind – heavy rain and winds are forecast – expect a plethora of Garryowens from Sexton and Murray at halfback. This is Ireland after all.
Aside from O’Connell’s inclusion, Joe Schmidt has seen no need to shuffle a pack which performed well on the opening weekend. Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry and Peter O’Mahony look a well balanced back-row with Tommy O’Donnell providing a further openside option on the bench. Devin Toner starts alongside the captain in the second-row, while Dan Tuohy drops to the bench.
There are no changes in the Irish front row. Mike Ross, Rory Best and Cian Healy start, with messrs Cronin, McGrath and Moore all primed to have a significant impact in the final quarter.
Warren Gatland makes three changes to his starting pack from their below par display against Italy. Sam Warburton returns to the starting XV to re-form a familiar back-row combination with Lydiate and Faletau. Justin Tipuric reverts to the bench.
Paul James will have to wait for his half century of caps as Gethin Jenkins comes back in at loose-head. Andrew Coombs replaces Luke Charteris, who tweaked his hamstring on the opening weekend, where he’ll partner Alun Wyn Jones in the engine room. Scarlets’ Jake Ball is promoted to the bench. Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones will pack down with Jenkins in the front-row with James primed to win his 50th cap as a replacement alongside Ken Owens and Rhodri Jones.
The Welsh backline is unchanged with Leigh Halfpenny set to receive his 50th international cap, a commendable milestone considering he’s only 25. Jonathan Davies hasn’t yet had sufficient game time to make a return so Scott Williams and Jamie Roberts, in many respects the key to Warrenball tactics, continue in the centre.
Wales will look to get wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert with their hands on the ball as often as possible while Phillips and Priestland direct matters from halfback. Rhys Webb, James Hook and Liam Williams are replacements.
All eyes on
It didn’t take long for Jonathan Sexton to dispel any lingering thoughts that he might suffer from the change of pace coming from the Top 14. Sexton quickly found his rhythm after a blistering break which demonstrates his threat from anywhere on the field. No other side in the championship has that threat coming from out-half.
Leigh Halfpenny will lead Wales onto the Aviva turf on Saturday, but it’s to talismanic captain Sam Warburton that the Welsh will look for leadership and inspiration. Putting current contract wrangling to the side, the Cardiff Blue will need to be at his brilliant best to combat an Irish back-row which functioned like clockwork against Scotland.
Head to head: Jamie Heaslip v Taulupe Faletau
In all the furore over Gatland’s selection of his outside centre for the third Lions test, his choice of number eight was largely overlooked in the headlines. Heaslip was certainly worthy of a start in the decider having played well in the first two tests, but Gatland preferred to go with Faletau. These pair roomed together at one stage on the tour so they’ll be familiar opponents.
Faletau has possibly held an edge in this fixture recently, but Heaslip’s man of the match performance on the opening weekend bodes well for the home team even if we can expect ‘Toby’ Faletau to improve on what was a reasonably subdued outing against Italy. Both men will be key assets in an intriguing back-row contest which will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Home advantage doesn’t appear to be a significant factor in this fixture – Ireland won last year at the Millennium stadium while Wales stole a narrow two point victory two years ago in Dublin.
Competition in the back-row will be fierce and a lot will depend on Ireland’s ability to cope with Wales’ physicality in the backline with Jamie Roberts set to play a key role against the Irish midfield.
Either way, I don’t see there being more than one score’s difference between the sides at the final whistle and both coaches will be desperate not to lose momentum after opening weekend wins, but if Ireland bring their intensity close to where it was against New Zealand and build a lead then I’d back them to just hold on for a narrow win. Ireland by 4.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images