The 6 Nations 2013 gets under way with the ever growing grudge match between Wales and Ireland. The Irish face one of their toughest tasks in taking on Wales away from home, and Declan Kidney has picked a side full of dangerous runners, yet with a lack of bulk in his backline if Wales’ strike runners get quick possession, then defensively they could be in trouble.
Ireland has a vastly experienced centre partnership in O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, yet age and fitness could be against them when facing such a physical Wales backline. The inexperienced Zebo and Gilroy are handed starting spots on the wings and whilst both are deceptive and daring runners, their defence can be suspect. If Ireland’s attack manages to get behind Wales’ front line defence than both these players could be critical in Ireland’s chances of securing the win.
Wales have opted for a settled backline, the only change from the Autumn Internationals being the enforced one at fly half due to the injury to outside half Rhys Priestland. Up steps Dan Biggar for his first stint in a 6 Nations. It would perhaps have been easier to have chosen the more experienced Hook, yet Biggar’s skills with the boot and style of play suit Wales. Added to that he is no stranger in performing well against Irish sides he’s a very good choice to take charge of the 10 shirt for Wales.
Ireland have opted for the half back pairing of Sexton and Murray. Whilst Sexton might edge Biggar in terms of experience, Phillips has the upper hand over Murray, being a more complete player and excelling at the physical aspects of the game.
Full back will be a fascinating battle with Kearney facing Wales’ Halfpenny. Both are genuine contenders for the Lions full back shirt, yet form and consistency all lie with the Wales player. A reliable boot, an incredible last ditch defensive line and safety under the high ball all point to Wales having the advantage in this area. Kearney currently struggling for full fitness presents his own danger though in how he cuts the line with some devastating runs. Wales will need to be smart to his line breaks and ability to attack off the high ball if they are to prevent him from causing them serious damage.
It is in the forwards though that the key battles will take place. Wales have the upper hand in the front row with a formidable scrummaging unit of Jenkins, Rees and Jones. Ireland’s Healy, Best and Ross have all been in great form for their provinces however and whilst Wales might be stronger in this aspect, it isn’t by much.
The backrows are also fairly evenly matched. The balance of Shingler, Faletau and Warburton is a good one, all excellent tacklers as well as extremely mobile which should provide Wales with the players needed to compete at the breakdown. Ireland have a very effective backrow of their own with O’Mahoney, Heaslip and O’Brien and if their pack can gain the ascendency then expect the likes of Heaslip and O’Brien to attempt to run rampant.
Where the difference in these two teams really likes though is that of the second row. Wales injury issues have been well documented and they’ve taken a risk in slotting Ian Evans back in without any recent game time. They also hand a first cap to the Dragons’ Andrew Coombs. Coombs has been playing very well for his region and with his lauded work rate, he will hopefully provide Wales with the player that can do the grunt work to allow their other forwards to shine. Ireland have opted for McCarthy and Ryan, perhaps lending themselves the edge in both the lineout and carrying, although Evans’ superb stats from last years’ tournament for line out success is one worthy of noting.
When looking at the replacements, it is Wales that has the upper hand, especially in their forwards. With a full compliment of excellent front row players to choose from and the tenacious Tipuric to provide a change in pace, if the two teams are within touching distance going into the last quarter then this just might prove the difference.
The starting line ups are as ever very evenly matched, yet Wales overall have the edge. If they can manage to get stability in their set piece then they should have the intelligence to utilise their strike runners to cause the defence in the Irish backline problems. As ever with Wales though it is not the players they pick, but just what gameplan they choose to implement. Looking at interim head coach Howley’s picks, it doesn’t look as if he is going to vary his tactics from the Autumn series. If that is the case then Welsh fans must simply hope that they improve their execution of those tactics dramatically if they are to have any chance of performing well enough to win, starting with their defence.
If Ireland gain the upper hand then their sheer experience in midfield and the guile of the running their back three should be enough to see them home as the victors. Kidney however runs the risk of putting out too light weight a team, and if the forwards don’t gain the advantage they should against a Wales pack missing key players then they will face problems in trying to press their own advantages.
This match is almost too close to call. Recent meetings between the two, rugby world cup quarter final aside, have gone right down to the wire. Looking at the teams, Wales probably should just edge it, yet if their poor form continues, then Saturday evening could well see Cardiff being painted green, as the Irish have the potential to get off to a dream start in this year’s campaign.
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny (Blues); Alex Cuthbert (Blues), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Jamie Roberts (Blues), George North (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Mike Phillips (Bayonne); Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Andrew Coombs (Dragons), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Sam Warburton (Blues, capt), Toby Faletau (Dragons).
REPLACEMENTS: Ken Owens (Scarlets), Paul James (Bath), Craig Mitchell (Exeter), Olly Kohn (Harlequins), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Lloyd Williams (Blues), James Hook (Perpignan), Scott Williams (Scarlets).
IRELAND: R Kearney; C Gilroy, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; M McCarthy, D Ryan; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip (capt).
REPLACEMENTS: S Cronin, D Kilcoyne, D Fitzpatrick, C Henry, D O’Callaghan, E Reddan, R O’Gara, K Earls.