Simon Lewis takes a look at how the two sides match up.
A Test debut for Munster’s CJ Stander in the back row is the most notable selection by head coach Joe Schmidt as he begins the bid for three titles in a row. Three years and three months after landing in Ireland from South Africa, the 26-year-old gets the nod at blindside flanker over Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock and brings great form and leadership to a pack missing the retired Paul O’Connell and injury victims Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy, and Mike Ross, who misses his first Six Nations game in Schmidt’s two-year reign. Those props, expected back in the near future, are covered tomorrow by Jack McGrath and Six Nations debutant Nathan White. Mike McCarthy partners Devin Toner in the second row with Donnacha Ryan on the bench.
There is another enforced change in the back row with Sean O’Brien sitting out as a precaution due to a hamstring issue, his place on the openside going to Tommy O’Donnell with Jamie Heaslip retaining the No.8 berth.
Rob Kearney (hamstring) is another kept back with a trip to France just six days later, Simon Zebo deputising at full-back while Jared Payne returns to the midfield for the first time since Ireland’s second World Cup pool game last September, when he suffered a foot injury, and partners a fit-again Robbie Henshaw.
One to Watch
All eyes will be on Stander and whether he can bring his ball-carrying power to the Test arena against the toughest and most experienced of back rows. The all-Lions trio of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau with another, Dan Lydiate in reserve. Ireland have time and again fallen prey to that quartet and if Stander comes through this challenge he would seem set fair for a continued run at No.6.
Warren Gatland has handed Scarlets loosehead prop Rob Evans a start at the expense of Lions veteran Gethin Jenkins for his third match against Ireland this season. He has also recalled wing Tom James for his first cap since November 2010 in a new-look back three alongside George North and full-back Gareth Anscombe.
The most significant selection decision is arguably the inclusion of openside flanker Justin Tipuric and the switch to blindside for captain Sam Warburton as regular No.6 Dan Lydiate, whose chop-tackling decimated Ireland at the 2011 World Cup, drops to the bench in a matchday squad that boasts 943 Wales caps, 364 of them on the bench, and 10 British & Irish Lions.
One to watch
Jonathan Davies needs no introduction to Ireland supporters, whether they remember the outside centre carving open the Irish defence in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final or begrudge him getting the nod over Brian O’Driscoll for the third and deciding Lions Test against Australia in 2013. Davies missed this season’s World Cup through injury but the Clermont back will be eager to make up for lost time by giving Ireland’s defence the runaround.
Ireland versus Wales in the Six Nations has always made for memorable contests and none more so than the most recent encounters under the commands of Schmidt and Gatland. Last season’s Welsh victory was an epic encounter decided by home intensity at the breakdown and set-piece nous amid a cacophonous din under the Millennium Stadium roof. This weekend’s reprise could be just as dramatic and with the added intrigue of the Lions’ head coach post for 2017 up for grabs at the end of the campaign. Both Schmidt and Gatland have distanced themselves from the chatter and the likelihood of either taking the prestigious job for the tour to New Zealand but there is no doubt tomorrow’s game will go a long way to helping the Lions decide the man they want to negotiate a daunting tour and Test series against the world champion All Blacks.
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