Ireland open their Six Nations campaign this Sunday against Wales in what is sure to be a humdinger of a game at the Aviva Stadium, kick off 3.00pm.
While atoning for the defeat at last year’s World Cup will be on the mind of every Ireland supporter and player, first and foremost a win against the Welsh is vital to insuring that Ireland get their Six Nations campaign off to a successful start.
The late defection of Keith Earls, due to personal reasons, from the staring 15, means that Fergus McFadden has the job of filling a certain Brian O’Driscoll’s jeresy at 13.
While one player doesn’t make a team, how Ireland cope with the loss of the legendary centre will have a huge bearing on how their Six Nations will go.
McFadden has played well for Leinster this season in the absence of O’Driscoll. Similar to him, he has pace, quick feet and an eye for the line. Sunday is another step up for him.
The rest of the Ireland team has a settled look to it. The front five, led by captain Paul O’Connell, picks itself. Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross had a good World Cup and in only their second Six Nations as a front three combination there is sure to be huge scope for improvement this year.
How the back three of Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip cope with the Wales backline will have a huge bearing on the outcome of the game.
The Ireland trio were nullified with huge success at the World Cup by Wales. O’Brien in particular was stopped at source on countless occasions that Ireland struggled for any quick, go forward, ball.
It will be interesting to see just what impact Les Kiss and Mark Tainton have had on Ireland’s attacking game since the departure of attack coach Alan Gaffney.
Ireland had, to a point, become easy to read in recent games. The wrap-a-round move worked a couple of seasons back. Now teams know that it that move is Ireland’s ace and when that doesn’t work Ireland don’t have a plan B.
Coming to the Aviva will hold no fear for Wales. Warren Gatland’s side were so close to reaching their maiden World Cup final in New Zealand and if they can build on that success then they will have a huge say in this Six Nations.
It’s hard to point to a weakness in this Wales side. They are a huge side, see Jamie Roberts for reference. They are led by a hugely determined and talented captain in Sam Warburton and have lethal strike runners all over the park.
To beat Ireland they need to produce a performance just like that quarter final in New Zealand. They deprived Ireland of any quick ball and shut down O’Brien, Heaslip et al with apparent ease.
If they do that again Ireland could be in trouble. Wales have the means to hurt Ireland. Likewise the home side can take it to anyone on their day.
Small margins win rugby matches. If Ireland, with a jam packed Aviva Stadium behind them, start well and shut the Wales threat down early they can win it.
Should Wales do a number on Ireland’s back three again then it could be a long day for the home side.
So many questions to be answered. Not long until we get answers, and possibly redemption. Ireland to win by five.
R Kearney, T Bowe, K Earls,G D’Arcy, A Trimble, J Sexton,C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D.O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (c), S Ferris, S O’Brien, J Heaslip
16 – Sean Cronin
17 – Tom Court
18 – Donnacha Ryan
19 – Peter O’Mahony
20 – Eoin Reddan
21 – Ronan O’Gara
22 – Dave Kearney
Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North; Rhys Priestland, Michael Phillips; Rhys Gill, Huw Bennett, Adam Jones, Bradley Davies, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, Sam Warburton (C), Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Paul James, Andy Powell, Justin Tipuric, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams