Wales are our closest neighbours, but this is not simply geographic, it stretches to sport and most of all where rugby is concerned.
While England are the old enemy, the giant that we sometimes slay, Wales feel like they are our equals. We are expected to beat them at least as often as they beat us.
They have the edge, however, with sixty-nine wins to our fifty-one, with seven games drawn. The double-header warm-up games don’t matter as much to anyone, now that we have sights set on the World Cup, but a soft loss or two would keep us firmly behind this close rival.
Joe Schmidt has opted for a much changed team with a lot of the young pretenders getting what might be a final chance to show their worth.
The biggest surprise is his selection of Garry Ringrose in the substitute out-half position. Given his poor record of kicking from hand this is one decision from the manager that I am shocked by. It just makes no sense to me.
I am pleased to see Conan, Beirne, Farrell, Addison and Carty get rare starts in the first fifteen. The team has an exciting feel to it. Also good to see Marmion get his chance to shine. Arguably he is in position as number two scrum half (to Murray) and he should cement that position with a good performance.
Rory Best is left on the bench to give Niall Scannell a run out. No doubt the Ireland captain wants more game minutes under his belt after a rusty looking showing against England. I think it takes him a few games to get up to pace and we will not see his best until the World Cup itself.
Scannell can see his name pencilled in with a decent performance. The line out let us down last week and is likely to again be challenged by the home team.
Here is the team sheet:
|Rhys Carre||1||Dave Kilcoyne|
|Ryan Elias||2||Niall Scannell|
|Samson Lee||3||John Ryan|
|Adam Beard||4||James Ryan|
|Bradley Davies||5||Iain Henderson|
|Aaron Shingler||6||Tadhg Beirne|
|James Davies||7||Peter O’Mahony (Captain)|
|Josh Navidi (Captain)||8||Jack Conan|
|Aled Davies||9||Kieran Marmion|
|Jarrod Evans||10||Jack Carty|
|Steff Evans||11||Jacob Stockdale|
|Owen Watkin||12||Bundee Aki|
|Scott Williams||13||Chris Farrell|
|Owen Lane||14||Andrew Conway|
|Hallam Amos||15||Will Addison|
|Elliot Dee||16||Rory Best|
|Rob Evans||17||Andrew Porter|
|Leon Brown||18||Tadhg Furlong|
|Jake Ball||19||Devin Toner|
|Ross Moriarty||20||Jordi Murphy|
|Tomos Williams||21||Luke McGrath|
|Rhys Patchell||22||Garry Ringrose|
|Jonah Holmes||23||Dave Kearney|
Wales have made a good amount of change since their last game against England two weeks ago, and are even handing debuts to a few players, Owen Lane and Rhys Carre. Gatland obviously wants to stretch a few legs and keep incumbents concentrated.
A coach should never close the doors on blooding new players, but with both Schmidt and Gatland departing at the close of the competition, it cannot be claimed that either is building for the future. These players, and a few of the Irish fringe are in with a real chance of making it to Japan, should they give a good performance.
It’s tricky to impress with such a small window, maybe they will only be on the pitch for fifty or sixty minutes. And they are competing with opposite numbers in exactly the same boat.
It reminds me of the apparent opportunity both Jamie Heaslip and Luke Fitzgerald had many years ago, when despite excellent performance throughout the year and in the warm-up fixtures, they were simply not taken on tour. They just did not do enough to push out the incumbents.
It’s hard to predict how this game will go with so many changes in both sides. It probably doesn’t really matter how it goes, so long as the players get a chance to feel the physicality of real test rugby.
I suspect both coaches know already who will be on the plane and this feels like a last chance to get some players up to speed while wrapping the others in cotton wool
Does that mean that Ross Byrne is going? We cannot afford to have doubts hanging over both Sexton and Carberry and then lose the Leinster out half in a warm up game. That might mean that Carty is “expendable” to keep Byrne from injury.
Then again, it may be that Joe is seriously considering Ringrose at ten and wants to see how he gets on. If it works then he has cover for the Scotland game, he may not bother with three speciality players there. Carty and Byrne would stay at home.
I don’t know. This is a confusing selection in a match that I don’t expect to be all that representative of the positions of both sides. It’s interesting from a potential entertainment factor, with both sides probably trying to show some of their flair.
Then again, both teams like to boast of their tight defensive system. Ireland have a lot to fix after England made a mockery of that claim but Wales have fared better. This could be a game dominated by tight defences with no one wanting to take a chance in case of making a mistake that might see their name struck off the list.
The double header nature of these fixtures is unique. Whatever goes on in the Principality Stadium on Saturday, can be rectified by the losing team the following week in Aviva Stadium.
With such a green team fielded by Gatland, Ireland have snuck into the position of favourites for the game, with a handicap of negative one point. Can they get their act together? With players like James Ryan, Andrew Conway, Peter O’Mahony and Jacob Stockdale in the mix, all players in great form, it feels like they should easily win the game by a healthy margin.
However, the shades of last week’s bruising, almost cowardly loss to England reminds us that all is not yet right in the Irish squad. Is seven days enough time to fix things? Only time will tell.