Will it be home sweet home as Alun Wyn Jones & Co return to the Principality Stadium to play Ireland?

Six Nations Wales v Ireland Preview

Wales return to the Principality Stadium for their opening match of this year’s Six Nations against Ireland, but will it be home sweet home for Alun Wyn Jones and his team?

They played their home matches last autumn at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli because the Cardiff ground had been turned into a field hospital to help with the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has since been decommissioned and will serve its more traditional purpose as a rugby stadium during the championship.

Yet there is, of course, one marked difference – no fans. The Principality Stadium is always a riot of colour and noise when Six Nations time rolls around, and that sense of occasion spreads throughout Cardiff city centre.

The 2021 championship will provide a stark contrast – deserted streets rather than supporters spilling onto pavements from local bars and pubs; the silence of rows of empty seats replacing the cacophony produced by packed stands.

As Rugby World columnist Stephen Jones wrote in his tribute to rugby fans: “Major stadiums are called the cathedrals of the game. But what are cathedrals without congregations?”

Players have been performing to empty stadiums for months now, but an empty Principality is still likely to be something of a shock given the sound that usually reverberates around the ground.

Playing on home soil has certainly been a factor in this Six Nations fixture in recent years, with Ireland’s 2013 win in Cardiff the last time the visiting side triumphed. But the lack of a sellout crowd this year could well negate Wales’ ‘home advantage’.

Ireland have lost their last three away games in the Six Nations but they have never lost four in a row while Wales, who lost to Scotland and France at home last year, haven’t been beaten three times on the bounce on Welsh soil since 2002-03.

Both teams were criticised at various points in 2020 – the first years of Wayne Pivac’s and Andy Farrell’s reigns respectively – so will be looking to demonstrate significant signs of improvement in this year’s championship.

For example, the lineout for those in red and green malfunctioned a fair bit in the Autumn Nations Cup, so that will no doubt have been an area of focus.

Wales have experienced hooker Ken Owens back in situ for this game along with the world’s most-capped player, Alun Wyn Jones, at lock, while Ireland’s rising star James Ryan is becoming more accustomed to lineout calling. It is set to be a key battleground in this opening fixture.

So what else do you need to know about the game? Here’s our Six Nations Wales v Ireland Preview…

What’s the big team news?

Wales are without regular first-choice wing Josh Adams, who has been suspended for two matches for breaching Covid rules, so Louis Rees-Zammit and Hallam Amos start on the wing.

Related: Why Louis Rees-Zammit is getting faster

Jonathan Davies is injured so George North, more regularly a wing, forms a powerful centre pairing with Johnny Williams while captain Alun Wyn Jones has recovered from a knee problem to partner Adam Beard in the second row.

Dan Lydiate’s form for the Ospreys has been rewarded with his first Test start since November 2018, and he lines up in an experienced back row with Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

Hooker Ken Owens and scrum-half Tomos Williams both return after missing the Autumn Nations Cup through injury.

Caelan Doris was Ireland’s breakthrough star in 2020 but he’s been ruled out for this match so CJ Stander starts at No 8 and is joined in the back row by Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier.

Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw team up in midfield for Ireland for the first time since the 2019 World Cup while Hugo Keenan gets the nod at full-back.

Prop Cian Healy will make his 50th Six Nations appearance, in contrast to James Lowe, who is making his championship debut on the wing.

Tadhg Furlong, who played for Leinster last weekend after nearly a year on the sidelines with injury, is named on the bench, with Andrew Porter starting at tighthead.

Six Nations Wales v Ireland

Long-awaited return: Tadhg Furlong is back in the Ireland team for the first time in nearly a year (Inpho)

What have the coaches said?

Wales coach Wayne Pivac: “We know we have to tighten up, be more disciplined and not give them so many easy in-roads into our territory, which presents them with opportunities to score points.

“We’ve got to be disciplined and make sure the territory stats, in particular, are shared evenly.”

Ireland coach Andy Farrell: “George North at 13 is something they have done before and Alun Wyn comes straight back into the side, I am sure he will add an advantage there to the feeling of the group.

“Dan Lydiate coming back in will add new energy to the group as well. We expect them to be strong anyway but that side is a strong one.”

Any interesting statistics?

  • The stats from last year’s Six Nations suggest these are two similar teams – Wales averaged the most carries a game (127), Ireland were second with 126; Ireland made the most metres (738), Wales were third with 690; Ireland scored the most tries in the final quarter of matches (7), Wales were joint second with 6; they were the only two sides to score multiple tries originating from the scrum – Ireland four, Wales two.
  • This is Wales most experienced Test line-up:
  • Ireland were the most disciplined side in last year’s Six Nations, conceding just 41 penalties. They were also awarded the most (56).
  • Wales had the best lineout success rate in the 2020 championship, winning 62 of 70 (89%), but they also made 22 more handling errors than any other side (89), including 35 knock-ons.
  • Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale made the most metres and line breaks in the 2020 Six Nations, but is currently sidelined with a knee injury.
  • George North, who wins his 99th Wales cap, needs two more Six Nations tries to draw level with Shane Williams as the championship’s second top try-scorer. Former Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll tops the chart with 26.

What time does it kick off and is it on TV?

Wales v Ireland, Sunday 7 February, Principality Stadium

The final game of round one kicks off at 3pm in Cardiff and is live on BBC and S4C in the UK and Virgin Media One in Ireland. You can also listen to live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and RTE.

Wayne Barnes is the referee for this match and is assisted by fellow Englishman Luke Pearce and Alex Ruiz, of France. Tom Foley is the TMO.

What are the line-ups?

WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Johnny Williams, Hallam Amos; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Dan Lydiate, Justin Tupuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Will Rowlands, Josh Navidi, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Nick Tompkins.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Will Connors, Jamison Gibson Park, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.

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