Warren Gatland has made a bold squad announcement ahead of Sunday’s Six Nations showdown at the Aviva Stadium against holders Ireland, having seemingly opted for form over reputation.
Gatland will be looking forward to visiting Dublin despite the potential uphill battle they face, as history is in fact on Welsh’s side. Wales have won three of their last five at the Aviva, and Ireland have gained just 11 wins in 35 meetings against Wales at home since 1983.
The most notable additions to the squad include Justin Tipuric, who starts ahead of captain Sam Warburton’s trusted partner, Dan Lydiate, as well as the inclusion of 28-year-old, Tom James, at wing in place of Alex Cuthbert. James, who starts his first test since 2010, is coming off fine form for his regional club, Cardiff Blues. Fellow Blues winger Cuthbert has been demoted to the bench after a less than ideal World Cup campaign, but recent form will give Gatland slight confidence that he can make an impact if James gets stage fright.
Wales will have to lean on and utilise the experienced Back Row and Locks they possess, with Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris leading the charge alongside Taulupe Faletau in the Number Eight spot. This experience proliferates throughout the squad and onto the bench, with the squad boasting over 350 caps between them.
Ireland will hope to exploit any potential weak links Wales have, perhaps with half an eye on the Full-Back position in particular, where Gareth Anscombe starts. While Leigh Halfpenny is out for the entire campaign and Liam Williams still faces fitness concerns, the New Zealand-born Anscombe will earn only his fourth cap, and his first in the Six Nations.
Gatland’s long-term intentions for the Front Row have been hinted at with 35-year-old and record cap holder, Gethin Jenkins, making way for Scarlets’ 23-year-old prop Rob Evans. Elsewhere, Samson Lee starts at Tighthead prop hoping to respond positively from the kind of form which cost him his starting place at last year’s World Cup.
On the opposite side of the battle, Ireland will be looking to start their campaign strongly in an effort to claim a third Championship in a row. However, coach Joe Schmidt has had to deal with a number of injuries leading into the Wales clash, most notably in the absences of Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe, as well as doubt over the recovery of Jonny Sexton from concussion. Sexton has been passed fit to play on Sunday, but the absence of Kearney means that Simon Zebo will fill-in as a make-shift Full-Back and Munster’s CJ Stander will make his debut on the wing. In the Forwards, Jack McGrath, new captain Rory Best and Nathan White start in the front row, whilst the retirement of Paul O’Connell last November also means that Leinster locks Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy make up a new-look Second-Row partnership.
Defending their Six Nations crown will be no easy feat for this Irish outfit, and with the Wales and England most likely to be fighting hardest to take the crown, this weekend’s clash in Dublin could have a telling influence on who lifts the coveted trophy on March 19th.