The competition kicks off with a virtual cup final. As I suggested in my preamble, both these teams will have Triple Crown & Grand Slam aspirations and both will go up in smoke with defeat on the day.
Still, although Ireland are the away team and had a disappointing competition last year, they have every reason to believe they can get the better of a side that has consistently put them to the sword in recent seasons.
Things didn’t get off to the best start for the Irish set-up with the confusion surrounding the naming of Jamie Heaslip as captain followed closely by the announcement of Jonathan Sexton’s move to Paris for next season.
But although Declan Kidney has named some youth to his starting lineup, there are plenty of experienced heads out there who will know to put all that behind them and get on with the task in hand.
So what exactly is the task at hand when it comes to beating the Welsh? Well, things certainly haven’t been rosy for them since their Grand Slam success last season. A succession of defeats, a serious loss of form by their presumptive starting outhalf Rhys Priestland followed by a season-ending injury to the lad, plus the appointment of Gatland to the Lions job have all served to leave them starting virtually from scratch again this season. But in many ways that could be just how the Welsh will want it.
Looking at their starting lineup, you can certainly see several ways with which they can hurt the Irish, not least in their massive line from 11 through 14. We can only assume the majority of their offensive plan will be to create space for the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North to crash through our defences.
But what our own 11-14 combination may concede in stature, it certainly makes back in experience with Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy together yet again in the centre. And with Sexton himself a formidable tackler it certainly won’t be an easy line to crash through.
The most fascinating aspect of these two starting lineups is in the pack. First up we have a front row battle with everyone involved in the mix for Lions selection. In Mike Ross, Ireland has our key to success in this year’s competition. He is our only test standard tight-head and seeing how it is unlikely he will be able to play a full 80 minutes for all five matches, we will need to make the most hay when he is on the pitch.
But it is behind the front row where this particular battle should be won or lost. It could be said that both sides are at sixes and sevens with their selections!
In the second row, only Ian Evans on the Welsh side is a specialist lock forward. His partner, débutante Andrew Coombes, can also play six as can both the Irish pairing of Donncha Ryan and Mike McCarthy. Also on the Irish team Sean O’Brien, himself a renowned 6 for Leinster, himself has the 7 jersey.
When you factor in the fact Jamie Heaslip has been known to concentrate more on clearing out rucks and less on carrying, ie a 7 role, in recent times, plus of course the undoubted abilities of Warbuton and Faletau on the Welsh side, you have all the making of a battle royale at the breakdown, and referee Romain Poite will certainly have his work cut out to make sure the Laws of the Game will be adhered to!
If Ireland can get themselves a plentiful supply of quick ball (secure lineout on our own throw will also be key), it will be down to an exciting looking back three of Gilroy, Zebo and Kearney (should he be fit) to get into positions for Sexton to put them in to space.
We certainly have the ability to come out on top, and in each of our defeats to Wales of late we can point to our own failings as to why we didn’t. So despite all the finer points I have outlined above, what I feel we need more than anything else is something that you can’t draw on a blackboard or look for in a DVD session. We need the team to keep their head in the game for the full 80 minutes, forgetting the four other matches to come in the competition, and once we’re deep into the match, focus on dealing with what’s in front of the rather than trying to stick to complex sets of strategies.
Should we find the right amount of leadership in the right areas on the day, I feel we just about have what it takes to get the job done, so I’m going for an Irish victory at 6/5 with Boylesports.com