Ireland v Wales: Head-to-Head
It's difficult to remember a game against Ireland that didn't cause a communal increase in heart-rates across Wales. These are always nail-biting affairs, and frequently too close to call. This year's match is no exception. Wales beat Ireland in the World Cup quarter final but since then have lost several key players through injury and retirement; Ireland were shown to be second best to Wales in that game and have been criticised by some in the media for selecting a very familiar looking squad, but have three club sides in the last 8 of the Heineken Cup and are thriving in the PRO12 league.
Weather will play a key factor in the opening clash for the two sides in this tournament; it is also more than likely to come down to the respective prowess of the kickers.
So which are the key head-to-head clashes in the starting lineups? Ireland's forward pack look to be slightly stronger at first glance, particularly given their continuity of players and dominance at regional level. Wales arguably seem to have the edge in the backs, with a physically dominant midfield and wing contingent combined with pace, strong kickers and the odd sidestep thrown in.
Cian Healy v Adam Jones
Healy, a part-time DJ and Jones, the so-called 'Prop Idol' and one half of the Hair Bears will go into battle in what is shaping up to be a fascinating scrummage battle. Jones is widely lauded as one of the world's best scrummaging props, but may be considered by some marginal underdog versus Healy, part of the massively impressive Leinster pack that have performed brilliantly in both the Heineken Cup and the PRO12 thus far this season. With Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees out with injuries Jones will be expected to lead the scrum with his experience. Welsh fans will be expecting a performance in perfect pitch from Jones to drive the Welsh scrum forward.
Rory Best v Huw Bennett
Bennett, called in as a result of injury to Matthew Rees, is a more than worthy replacement. Bennett provides a solid base in the scrum and his play in the loose complements the playing style Gatland has implemented perfectly. The only potential issue could prove to be the lineout, an aspect of the game which has not been Wales' strong suit in recent times. Contrasted to Best and his lineout forwards (I'm talking O'Connell and O'Callaghan primarily) this may be one area in which Ireland have a definite advantage. Hopefully all the throws and jumps will go smoothly for Wales, as they will need as much quick ball as they can get.
Mike Ross v Rhys Gill
Gill was one of the more surprising calls in the Welsh XV. The selection is definitely deserved following some stand-out performances in a stellar Saracens forward pack. The favourite for replacing the injured Gethin Jenkins in this position was Paul James, who has been in and around the Welsh XV for the last few years. Nonetheless, the mobile Gill could be just the antidote Wales need to halt the Irish front-row, who on paper at least look a formidable outfit. Emphasising Leinster's dominance at regional level, Ross makes it 2 out of three for the Dublin team in the front row. Ross has proven himself both in Ireland with Munster and Leinster and in England with Harlequins. Wales will need to stop any potential charges from him early on.
Donncha O'Callaghan v Ian Evans
O'Callaghan has been selected for the British and Irish Lions twice, is a two-time winner of the Heineken Cup with Munster, and has been part of a Celtic league champion side twice in recent years. This kind of experience is not enjoyed by Wales in the second row for Sundays match, with injuries to Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris meaning Osprey Evans receives a starting jersey for the game. Evans has been plagued by injury himself during his career, first making his Wales debut in 2006 and garnering merely 17 caps since then. Evans is a hugely talented lock (quite literally, standing at 6 ft 8") and should compete with O'Callaghan in every facet of the game. His lack of experience could tell in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Aviva Stadium, but determination to stake a claim for a permanent starting position should spur Evans on.
Paul O'Connell (c) v Bradley Davies
O'Connell is something of a cult figure in Ireland, and to my mind at least seems to have been a permanent fixture in the Irish side forever. Davies himself has been involved at international level for Wales in 32 matches and is one of the names certain to be called out come squad selection day. The second row is an area of immense strength for Ireland, and with Wales' first-choice pairing out injured, Davies will need to put up a near-perfect performance to keep a handle on the breakdown skills of O'Connell. Master of the lineout, O'Connell is regarded as one of the best back-5 forwards in the northern hemisphere. Davies will need to recapture last year's form with some trademark tackles, steals and gainline breaks to make his mark.
Stephen Ferris v Ryan Jones
On paper, Ireland's back-row looks to be nigh-on perfect. Ferris's form is pretty much constant, and has inspired his club side Ulster this season to some barn-storming wins over Leicester and Clermont Auvergne: two of the most ferocious and talented packs in the world. Jones himself is a well-established international back-row player and has been immensely useful for Wales since his debut in 2004 due to his ability to play lock, flanker and no 8. I think this match-up is one of the most interesting, as the two players are comparable in so many ways; so much so that Jones was called up to the Lions squad as a like-for-like replacement for Ferris in 2009. Ireland will expect to have dominance in the battle of the back-rows, but with the experience and leadership of Jones, Wales stand a chance of spoiling their party. The loss of Dan Lydiate from the blindside flank is huge for Wales defensively, but arguably Jones offers a different set of skills which should enhance Wales' attacking play.
Sean O'Brien v Sam Warburton (c)
O'Brien is one of the outstanding back-row forwards in world rugby currently; a fact which has been reflected in the numerous accolades awarded to him as a result of an outstanding 2010-11 season both for Leinster and Ireland. Of course, his adversary on Sunday is no stranger to praise himself. Warburton has been hailed the world over as the future of professional rugby, not only for his impeccable comportment off the field, but for his outstanding play at flanker for Wales. Defensively, Warburton is one of the most important players for Wales; epitomised by his brilliant performance against South Africa's jackler-in-chief Heinrich Brussow in the World Cup. Despite the formidable reputation of O'Brien, Warburton has to be favourite to come out on top of this battle and will lead from the front in his role as captain.
Jamie Heaslip v Toby Faletau
One of the most exciting match-ups not only of this match, but of the Six Nations as a whole. Heaslip is one of Leinster Rugby's star players, and can often be found scoring tries from long range dispatching a few would-be tacklers on the way. There is no better option for Wales to face Heaslip than the young Faletau - who has more than lived up to all the media hype surrounding his performances. Welsh back-row veteran this week claimed Faletau has 'the lot', and praise has come from all corners of the rugby world for the explosive Dragon. Deceptively quick and strong, Faletau's pick-ups from the base of the scrum could prove crucial against a strong Irish pack, and his pace might just give him the edge over the impressive Heaslip.
Conor Murray v Mike Phillips
Potentially the most fiery match-up of the lot. Many pundits have labelled Murray 'a young Mike Phillips' and the clash of these two extremely physical scrum-halves should provide a fascinating battle. Phillips is coming off the back of a hugely impressive World Cup campaign that arguably cemented his first XV place and a big money move to France. Murray is one of the many Munstermen in the Ireland squad, who have just completed a terrific run in the Heineken Cup, finishing top seeds. Whether this will prove a help or a hindrance remains to be seen over the course of the tournament.
Jonathan Sexton v Rhys Priestland
Sexton and Priestland are two of the most celebrated young stand-offs in world rugby. Priestland's late confirmation for the game will have provided relief for all Welsh fans, and likely inspired a little worry in the hearts of Irish fans. Priestland's consummate performance in the World Cup caught the world's attention; his calm control of the backline and on-field vision has been cited as one of the main reasons for Wales' success of late. Welsh fans will be hoping Sexton's Heineken Cup final heroics of 2011 will not show themselves come Sunday. Ireland v Wales is historically a nail-biter, games that often hinge on one mistake or one moment of brilliance. Sexton and Priestland will likely prove pivotal in this respect; Welsh fans may be pleased not to see O'Gara's name on the team sheet given his penchant for dropping goals. Priestland's goal-kicking form has been inconsistent at times, and could have an adverse effect on the rest of his stand-off play; Gatland could give the place-kicking duties to Priestland to allow Priestland to focus on running the game as he does best.
Gordon D'Arcy v Jamie Roberts
If Ireland's back-row looks strong on paper, it's nothing compared to Wales' backline. And not just on paper. There will be those that argue that the pairing of Roberts and Davies is the brawn to Ireland's brains in midfield. But any Welsh fan, or indeed any rugby fan who watched Wales at the World Cup knows that Roberts and Davies offer much more than raw strength. Rumours that Roberts would not be passed fit for this match were understandably terrifying for Welsh fans, as Roberts supplies the impetus for the backline moves Wales has become known for. Roberts's line breaks are some of the most powerful and explosive in international rugby, and he is rightly thought of as one of the most valuable centres in world rugby. Roberts combines strength and skill with experience, which should prove too much for D'Arcy to deal with in midfield.
Fergus McFadden v Jonathan Davies
McFadden replaces Earls, who pulled out of the game due to family reasons. Arguably this change could benefit Ireland, as McFadden provides a more physical presence in midfield to partner the jinking D'Arcy. The pairing of D'Arcy and Earls was seen by some to be defensively suspect against the strong backline Wales are starting with. McFadden has put in some strong defensive performances this season in a Leinster side that has a points +/- difference of a staggering 128 in the PRO12. His lack of international experience could provide the gap Davies needs to implement a gain-line break, something which has become his signature move for the Scarlets of late. His deceptive pace and powerhouse runs should prove a lot to handle for McFadden, and should give Wales an edge, particularly if they receive quick lineout ball.
Andrew Trimble v George North
Trimble was once the wunderkind of Irish rugby, much as North is for Wales currently. Despite losing favour in the international XV over the last few years, Trimble's eye-catching performances for European quarter-finalists Ulster have warranted his inclusion in Declan Kidney's backline. North has been steadily improving since his memorable international debut in 2010. His combination of impressive physical stature and deceptive speed has been compared to that of the legendary Jonah Lomu, and Gatland and co will no doubt be hoping for some Lomu-esque charges up the Irish touchline come Sunday.
Tommy Bowe v Alex Cuthbert
Bowe is well-known to Welsh fans from his role at the Ospreys, potentially more well-known even than Cuthbert, who is a fairly new addition to the Blues side. With Shane Williams' retirement there was a winger position going spare and Cuthbert's try-scoring heroics for the Blues in Europe have earned him the spot. Cuthbert is a back in the mould of Roberts, Davies and North; his selection ahead of the more fleet-footed Liam Williams of the Scarlets could betray a plan by the Welsh management to challenge Ireland to a physical game. Cuthbert made his mark as a sevens player, and it is this combination of strength and speed that could see him edge the advantage over Bowe. Cuthbert's inexperience (he made his Welsh debut as a replacement for North in December 2011) has been cited by some as a cause for concern in the oft-tense fixture of Ireland v Wales; to those people I have two words: George North.
Rob Kearney v Leigh Halfpenny
A lot will be made of Halfpenny's small stature compared to his team-mates; Halfpenny steps right into the 'small but deadly' role left vacant by the retirement of Shane Williams. His accurate goal-kicking is a huge asset for Wales, and could see him take the mantle of first-choice goal-kicker for Wales, particularly given the injury concerns surrounding Priestland. Kearney will no doubt be a near constant threat to the Welsh defensive line and Halfpenny will need to be vigilant to stop Kearney getting a run-in at the Welsh try line.