New-look Irish facing same old Welsh defiance
Ireland have won the last three matches they played at under-20 level, against France, England and Italy in last summer’s Junior World Cup, and have a better win record in the Six Nations competition than Wales, who they meet tonight in their opening Six Nations Championship game at Eirias, Colwyn Bay.
Ireland have won 16 of their 25 games in the competition, compared to Wales’ 12 wins from 25. Otherwise, the teams are pretty even in their head to heads, as coach Mike Ruddock knows better than most.
However, Ruddock can’t really look to last year’s World Cup in South Africa, where his team also defeated the home side in their first match, as the Welshman yesterday named a new-look side. Just two players from last year are included in the starting team – fullback Stuart Olding and scrumhalf Luke McGrath, who will also captain the team tonight.
Ireland also beat Wales 11-6 in Dubarry Park last February, with second-half drop goals from Ulster outhalf Paddy Jackson and McGrath, which took them to a deserved victory.
More of the same
Ruddock will be hoping for more of the same from his rookie side as in 2012 Ireland dominated possession and territory, a 26th-minute try from full-back and man-of-the-match Shane Layden the highlight for the home crowd.
“The panel have prepared well and have had some good results in our warm-up matches,” said Ruddock. “The guys have worked very hard and are well conditioned.”
Wales have most of their team from last year, so there will be an experience deficit, with Ireland likely to look to McGrath and Olding for some guidance. But Ruddock was his usual optimistic self, his main job to mould the academy players into an effective team.
“It’s a tough challenge against Wales,” he added. “They have a very experienced panel. I think they have 10 players left over from last year. It will be a very tough game, but we’ve had some good results in our warm-up matches and we are very focused.”
Ruddock also pointed to a few of his recent players who have gone on to make impressions in the professional game; Rob Henshaw in Connacht as well as Ulster’s Jackson and Iain Henderson have all come through to push for places in their provincial senior teams.
Wales head coach Danny Wilson has picked his strongest available side, which includes five starters who won bronze at last summer’s Junior World Championship, with three more on the bench.
Fullback Dion Jones will start in front of his home town crowd at Parc Eirias, while Ospreys outhalf Sam Davies retains the number 10 jersey he wore in South Africa.
Rhodri Williams, who was part of the side that finished in fourth place in last year’s Six Nations, has been named at scrumhalf in what will be, as Ruddock said, a difficult opening match for the Irish.