Ireland vs Wales: Six Nations talking points

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From midfield changes to Ireland’s fight for redemption, and the extraordinary evenness in results between the two, here’s our talking points preview ahead of Ireland vs Wales at the Aviva Stadium in the Six Nations…

Midfield changes

While both Wales and Ireland may have won their opening Six Nations clashes last week, Wales 42-0 over Italy in Cardiff and Ireland 19-12 over Scotland in Dublin, both have made changes in their midfield.

Ireland’s is enforced as Garry Ringrose – who has been in sensational form for Leinster this campaign – is out with a hand injury and Robbie Henshaw comes in to partner Bundee Aki.

While Henshaw has been a superb servant to Ireland, he has perhaps produced his best displays in the 12 shirt, and so the loss of Ringrose is likely to be keenly felt.

For Wales, they have tinkered tactically as George North reverts back to the right wing, having started at 13 last week, and Johnny McNicholl is dropped from the starting XV. In at outside-centre is Saracens’ Nick Tompkins.

Tompkins impressed off the bench last week, scoring a superb try and in Dublin he will be making his first Test start for Wales.

It’s often said and largely agreed the most difficult channel to defend on a rugby pitch is the outside-centre berth – whichever of Henshaw and Tompkins can fare better may have a large say on the outcome of the Test.

Stander up and fight

CJ Stander had his critics before Ireland’s opener against Scotland on Saturday, with some saying he represented a style of play that suited Joe Schmidt and would not be right for the Andy Farrell era.

The Munster man was moved from his usual position of No 8 to the side of the scrum, and while Ireland’s performance overall was not too convincing, Stander answered his critics in emphatic fashion.

The 29-year-old carried 14 times, beat four defenders and made 18 tackles as well as turning the ball over twice at the Aviva Stadium in what was a man-of-the-match performance.

This week Stander has been moved back to the No 8 berth as Caelan Doris has been subject to return-to-play protocols after being forced off inside five minutes of his international debut last week.

Stander’s shift has left room for Peter O’Mahony to be promoted from the bench into the No 6 position. O’Mahony’s defensive work at the lineout will be important to Ireland’s cause, as will the all-round impact of Stander.

If the hosts’ Munster pair of back-rows return to the kind of form they showed in 2018, Wales will have a difficult task on their hands.

Redemption for 2019

Ireland will be looking for redemption after they were dispatched with ease in front of jubilant Wales home fans in this fixture last year.

In what was Schmidt’s final Six Nations game in charge of Ireland, the Irish arrived in Cardiff in the final round of the tournament with a chance to win the title if they were to beat Wales and the result of England’s game against Scotland went their way.

England and Scotland drew, which in theory would have left the door open for Ireland, but as it was they were soundly beaten 25-7 by Warren Gatland’s team.

It brought to an end a disappointing Six Nations for Ireland, who went from Grand Slam winners to finishing in third at just the wrong time to lose momentum with the World Cup looming large.

Though losing to Wales did not set Ireland on a course for a disappointing World Cup, a win in Cardiff that day, and a possible title, would have done wonders for a team struggling for confidence.

Can Farrell’s new charges set the tone for their era with a win that keeps them on a steady course for silverware?

Wales’ homesickness

Though home advantage is beneficial to all teams in all sports, it always seems to matter more in the Six Nations.

Wales’ record in Ireland in the championship shows a dismal return of four wins in the professional era (1998, 2000, 2008, 2012) – and just two in the last 12 years (2012, 2008).

In fact, Wales have only won once at the Aviva Stadium in the Six Nations since the stadium opened up its doors a decade ago.

In the grander scheme of things over the last while, however, these sides have been incredibly evenly matched. Of the last 17 encounters between the pair since 2008, eight have been won by Wales, eight have been won by Ireland and there has been one draw.

Over the same time frame, Wales have won four Six Nations titles (2008, 2012, 2013, 2019), while Ireland too have picked up four titles (2009, 2014, 2015, 2018).

Over 12 years, the two cannot be separated. Expect the same on Saturday. For all the general negativity in Irish rugby at the moment, and general positivity in the Welsh game, this Test is a toss of a coin.

It’s too tight to call.

Team News

Ireland: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton (c), 9 Conor Murray; 1 Cian Healy, 2 Rob Herring, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Iain Henderson, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 CJ Stander.

Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Max Deegan, 21 John Cooney, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Keith Earls.

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