By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
IT’S A replay of the World Cup quarter-final between Ireland and Wales in Dublin on Sunday afternoon – and both sides have points to prove.
Having lost twice to the Welsh last year – 22-10 in that game in Wellington and 19-13 in the Six Nations, a controversial Mike Phillips try proving the difference in Cardiff – Ireland are eager to get back to winning ways and start their championship campaign with a bang.
Wales will want to show that their memorable RWC run was no fluke and that they are contenders for the Six Nations title. So let’s take a look at the game’s key battle grounds…
As in New Zealand, the contest between the back rows will be crucial. Ryan Jones comes in for the injured Dan Lydiate and given his form for the Ospreys in recent weeks he’s a more than adequate replacement. His work-rate has been high in both defence and attack, and he also brings key leadership qualities.
Ireland have a phenomenal triumvirate in Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris but they were closed down effectively in that quarter-final, unable to make their usual impact with ball in hand. They will be keen to make amends and cross the gain-line at the Aviva Stadium but will also need to be mindful at the contact area as they don’t have a snaffler of the ball in the same mould as Wales captain Sam Warburton.
Wales might have an edge in terms of turnovers, but Ireland will look to gain an advantage at the set-piece. Mike Ross has provided ballast to the Irish scrum and will want to pile the pressure on Rhys Gill, who has a grand total of three minutes’ Test experience. Can Adam Jones even things up against Cian Healy? It is sure to be a tight battle.
Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan, playing a record 21st Six Nations Test together in the Ireland second row, are likely to dominate the lineout exchanges against a pairing – Ian Evans and Bradley Davies – that has appeared in just one International.
So what about the back-lines? Wales will be hugely relieved that Rhys Priestland is fit to start at fly-half. He was the man who sparked their back-line into action at the World Cup, playing flat and bringing Jamie Roberts onto the ball at pace. Roberts provides another fitness boost, but he has a big challenge to recapture his World Cup form after so many weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury.
The back three of Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and George North is young, quick and exciting, but they face an experienced and dangerous trio in Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble. It would be great to see these six players brought in off first and second phases, not just in the wide channels.
Ireland’s midfield has been disrupted by the withdrawal of Keith Earls, whose baby daughter is in hospital. Fergus McFadden pulls on the No 13 shirt vacated by injured talisman Brian O’Driscoll and this could actually serve the Irish better because he and Gordon D’Arcy have been playing alongside each other, and talented fly-half Jonathan Sexton, in Leinster colours.
VERDICT: All in all it’s set to be a fiercely competitive match and extremely tight, but with Priestland and Roberts fit I’m going for a one-point Wales win!
IRELAND v WALES, AVIVA STADIUM, SUNDAY 5 FEBRUARY, KICK-OFF 3pm, Live on BBC1
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Fergus McFadden, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, David Kearney.
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North; Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Rhys Gill, Huw Bennett, Adam Jones, Bradley Davies, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, Sam Warburton (capt), Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Paul James, Andy Powell, Justin Tipuric, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)