With Ireland depleted through injury, can Joe Schmidt's men make a successful start to the tournament, or can Wales spoil the atmosphere at the Aviva?
Ireland and Wales’ simmering Celtic rivalry will resurface on Sunday when Warren Gatland and his experienced squad across the Irish Sea to Dublin to take on Joe Schmidt’s depleted Ireland, as the men in green look for the perfect start to their campaign in their quest to become the first side to win three successive Six Nations titles.
As ever between these two teams, there are a number of intriguing match-ups that will go a long way towards deciding the final result.
Jonathan Sexton vs Dan Biggar
The former undisputed champion of northern hemisphere fly-halves lining up opposite one of the standout performers of the World Cup. The battle between Sexton and Biggar, based on their last six months of rugby, is weighted heavily in favour of the Welshman.
Biggar’s kicking at goal and from hand has been exemplary this season, as has been his play on the gain-line, whilst his now trademark kick and receive are a weapon that few, if any, other fly-halves have at their disposal. With Biggar playing like this, it’s no surprise that Ireland have turned to GAA coaches to help them master the aerial game in their preparation for this fixture.
Unlike Biggar, Sexton has been grasping for form since the RWC. Injuries, including further concussion concerns, and a faulty radar with his tactical kicking have seen Sexton struggle in a misfiring Leinster side. If he can reproduce the form of their Christmas Pro12 encounter, where he outshone Biggar, Ireland can prosper.
Same scrum contest, new combatants
The Welsh front row was bullied at the World Cup but with Samson Lee beginning to return to top form and the in-form Rob Evans drafted in at loosehead, their prospects look much better in the Six Nations. Gethin Jenkins has been an incredible servant to Welsh rugby over the last 14 years but he has fallen foul of Jerome Garces, the French referee, on several occasions. Evans may not yet have the international experience, but he is worthy of a Six Nations start as Wales build towards 2019.
Taking on Lee will be Ireland’s Jack McGrath. The Leinster loosehead has impressed in the province’s topsy-turvy season and has now arguably surpassed Cian Healy as Ireland’s best scrummaging loosehead. Lee and McGrath’s battle will be compelling, but it’s in the match-up between Evans and Nathan White where Wales may be able to exploit a weakness in the Irish front row.
With Mike Ross and Marty Moore both injured, Schmidt has been forced to resort to his third-choice tighthead and White’s experience has earned him the nod over Tadhg Furlong. If Evans can keep his feet underneath him and match Lee’s low body height on the other end of the front row, Wales could work a significant advantage at the scrum.
Battle of the breakdown
With Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien both missing through injury, not to mention the retirement of Paul O’Connell, Ireland’s pack, particularly their makeshift back row, will have a heavy workload keeping up with their Welsh counterparts. CJ Stander is set to make his debut on the blindside and has the work-rate and ball-carrying to excel in the role but arguably lacks the breakdown nous of an O’Mahony or O’Brien, leaving Tommy O’Donnell to shoulder a lot of work on Sunday.
Wales, on the other hand, have a full array of back-row options at their disposal. Gatland has opted for two opensides, picking Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, with the clear intent of dominating on the deck at the Aviva Stadium. The addition of Tipuric should negate Jenkins’s omission as a breakdown specialist and the resulting loss of turnover potential in the Welsh pack.
Tipuric’s inclusion does come at the cost of Dan Lydiate and though Lydiate isn’t the archetypal fetcher, he brings a lot to the contact area. Whilst Warburton and Tipuric feast on turning over opposition ball, Lydiate’s chop tackling is very damaging. Warburton, who is short of game-time, has said he’ll ‘blow a gasket’ and if he’s tiring, what better than a British and Irish Lion to enter the fray.
Wales to get off the perfect start?
On paper, Wales look to have a great chance of picking up all-important momentum in Dublin. Gatland’s XV boasts plenty of experience, whilst also bolstering problem positions with in-form players such as Evans and Tom James. With three wins from their last six games in Ireland, Wales are also a side that doesn’t get overrawed by the partisan Irish crowd.
As for Ireland, expectations have been raised following their last two campaigns, but given the plethora of injuries the squad is currently enduring, expectations of a third successive title may need to be tempered.
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