What a rivalry this has become over the years, with so many factors involved taking it far beyond just the whole “Celtic brethren” thing. The Six Nations schedule has had a habit of putting this matchup either at the end of the championship, when it has been known to clinch a Grand Slam for both Ireland and Wales, or at the beginning, like this year and last. Another reason for the non-stop niggle between nations has been the Celtic/Magners/Rabo/ProWhatever/URC competition, with over two decades of what I will generously describe as “banter” among fans, though rarely does that have to do with anything that actually happens on a rugby pitch. But what fascinates me the most about this year’s clash is the “cup final” nature of it, because while defeat in your first match never rules you out of Championship contention, for these two it will take both a Triple Crown and a Grand Slam off the picture for another year before any of the other four nations have so much as left a dressing room. So no pressure then! Yet after the November Ireland just had, the form book along with home advantage combine to suggest that we come into this one as clear favourites, something that the Welsh press and twitterati have been keen to play up during the week, and indeed why wouldn’t they. Meanwhile sections of the Irish press and twitterati are going down their usual road when looking at the matchday squad, taking a provincial inventory while obsessing more about who isn’t playing than who is. Anyway…what those autumn performances showed me is that this Irish set up seems to have not only found a style of play and combination of players which they can use to full effect, they can also look past things like adversity and the favourites tag to get results, and if we managed to take all those factors through to now, it will make an already daunting task for Wales even more so. For our podcast during the week I assembled a multi-provincial panel of fellow fans to look over Andy Farrell’s selection options, and for my part I took a “not broken so don’t fix it” approach - why not go with the team that beat New Zealand as much as possible, and that seems to be what they have done, with more than capable replacements for those who are unavailable. Clearly the most eye-catching name on the team sheet is that of Mack Hansen. Throwing him in for his first cap is a move that absolutely suits a player like him, very similar to James Lowe in that both tend to look for the direct route to success on the pitch at every turn. Maybe there won’t be as much space for him at this level, but he definitely has the talent to find a way regardless and I can’t wait to see him in an Irish shirt. Of course how he does depends a lot on our halfbacks and with Jamison Gibson-Park now free to play his natural style, he has been really made that 9 shirt his own and as for skipper Sexton, well whatever you say about Leinster’s opposition at the Rec he still showed he knows how to make a game of rugby dance to his tune. Robbie Henshaw not available you say? Always a shame, but also not too much of a problem for Ireland as Bundee Aki is an excellent replacement and his carrying will certainly put the experimental Welsh 12/13 combo to the test. Overall this is definitely a backline that can produce the goods on Saturday. As for the pack, well yet again we have a nailed on starter replaced by another who could also be one. Iain Henderson is always a massive presence in any squad but so is Tadhg Beirne and in a clash that’s always a strong battle of the breakdown his pilfering prowess will be key. But it’s the front and back rows that really show the backbone of this side. Yes, both units are all-Leinster but does that really matter if they’re getting the job done? If anything that’s a plus because they are more used to playing together. The Doris/JVDF/Conan trio in particular is one that just seems to be a perfect combination for us at this time, with all three on form and complementing each other perfectly. I’d go so far as to say that the longer we can keep these guys together over the next seven weeks, the better our overall chances of winning the championship as I forecasted on the pod. Now, to the bench. No real surprises in the forwards, although I do understand the shouts for Rob Herring to be involved, it’s hard to use criticism of Sheehan to push that narrative, it’s simply a borderline call IMO. And like I always say, if you can possibly get Peter O’Mahony involved in a 23, you do it because he naturally raises everyone’s game. But the 21-23 portion of the team sheet is worthy of some harping. First, while I have nothing against Conor Murray at all, with the way we’re playing now I’d be inclined to have Craig Casey in reserve, especially if, heaven forbid, anything should happen to JGP early on which would mean a big shift in our game plan with Murray. Then at 22 I know many are wondering what Jack Carty has to do to get in the squad and I am definitely a fan, but I also have to say Joey Carbery’s planned switch to full back against Argentina made a lot of sense and it allows us to broaden our options in reserve. All of which means that instead of a proven back three player at 23, we have instead James Hume who is another deserving of a 6N debut after a string of displays showing the right amounts of power and confidence for Ulster this season. On the Welsh side of things, well for about as long as this website has existed some of the best matches I’ve harped on have involved Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar wearing the respective 10 jerseys, and they certainly haven’t all ended up with me celebrating. Here they are both captains, though I reckon with very different remits. While our outhalf will be looking to control the tempo and assert attacking dominance, I have a feeling our visitors will be keen to soak it up as much as possible with a view to using the pace of those like LRZ to make the most of any chances that come their way. Still, we’ve seen enough of the Welsh over the years to know that whatever you might feel about their form from the previous November or indeed how their regions are playing, when they get together for this Spring Classic, they know full well how to rip up that form book. The bookies have a home win by 14 points and I can see where that comes from. Normally I wouldn’t want my team to know they were that heavily favoured for a match like this but in the case of this squad I reckon they can handle it and get it done. If Wales are on song defensively (and/or we put ourselves on the wrong side of Mr Peyper) then the BP might be just beyond us but it is still definitely worth aiming for especially in the case that nobody does a Slam. Elsewhere in the ruggersphere, we also have the Men’s U20 6N kicking off on Friday night in Cork and best of luck to all the lads there. (UPDATE - what an amazing performance and win by the latest crop of "Wolfpuppies", would definitely take that result today!!!) The Women’s version has been moved in the calendar which means it will take us all the way to the end of April, an absolutely brilliant idea in my book which should allow for more much-needed exposure for the tournament. So here’s to a great start to Ireland on Saturday, I hope the travelling Welsh supporters enjoy their trip (though not too much of course) and it should make for a great atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium and all around the area for the day. As always I’ll be throwing in my few cents throughout the match on Twitter and when the full time whistle blows be sure to head on over to the Facebook page and leave your thoughts. Here we go!!!!! JLP
Friday, February 04, 2022
Preview : Ireland v Wales
WALES : 15 Liam Williams, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Josh Adams, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Louis Rees-Zammit; 10 Dan Biggar (c), 9 Tomos Williams
1 Wyn Jones, 2 Ryan Elias, 3 Tomas Francis; 4 Will Rowlands, 5 Adam Beard; 6 Ellis Jenkins, 7 Taine Basham, 8 Aaron Wainwright.
16 Dewi Lake, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19
Seb Davies Ben Carter, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Callum Sheedy, 23 Owen Watkin.
Six Nations 2022 - Round 1
Saturday, February 5, 2022
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SARU)
AR1: Mathieu Raynal (FFR)
AR2: Angus Gardner (RA)
TMO: Stuart Terheege (RFU)
Live on RTÉ2