Ireland insist on some blue sky thinking when it comes to stadium roof
RUGBY:The Ireland squad arrived safe and sound in Cardiff yesterday evening, with the management confident Rob Kearney will be fit to play despite twisting his knee in training last Tuesday.
They will have their captain’s run at 2pm in the Millennium Stadium today and given the favourable forecast for tomorrow’s game, will insist on the roof remaining open despite Rob Howley’s preference for it to be closed.
“We would like the roof closed with the conditions of the last 10 days; which have been pretty awful.
“We always want to play good rugby in good conditions,” said the interim Welsh coach yesterday after unveiling his starting team and replacements for the beginning of their Grand Slam defence.
But after another wet morning today, and a shower or two at tea-time, tomorrow’s forecast is for a sunny day of around five degrees with little wind factor come the 1.30pm kick-off.
With Ryan Jones ruled out for another week due to the dislocated finger he suffered with the Ospreys against Leicester 10 days ago, in addition to their three World Cup locks (Alun Wyn-Jones, Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies), Howley has opted to start Ian Evans for his first game since the Samoan defeat in mid-November. Evans has never been on the losing side in nine appearances in the Six Nations.
Computer software salesman
Alongside him will be the team’s one debutant, the late developing 28-year-old Andrew Coombs, a former computer software salesman who played Welsh Premiership club rugby with Pontypool and Newport before graduating into the Dragons’ professional ranks three seasons ago and only recently switched positions from backrow to lock.
Elsewhere, there is still quite an experienced look to the Welsh team, with Howley re-uniting the 2009 British and Irish Lions Test frontrow of Gethin Jenkins, who wins his 95th cap, Matthew Rees and the hugely-important Adam Jones, fit again after being sorely missed in all of Wales’ autumn series due of a knee injury.
The trio thus extend their Welsh frontrow partnership record to 22 Tests, and although Howley cited the fact Jenkins played for 60 minutes last week, the evidence suggests his move to Toulon has not particularly benefited his game. “As a squad we have worked hard over the past two weeks and go into Saturday excited and confident at defending our title,” said Howley.
“It’s a boost to have Adam and Ian return from injury and it’s a great opportunity for Andrew who has been performing well at regional level to show what he can do on this stage. The Six Nations is all about momentum and we know we have to hit the ground running against Ireland.”
The Welsh coach has also resisted the clamour to field two openside flankers – captain Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric – with Warburton retained in his familiar number seven shirt, alongside Aaron Shingler and Toby Faletua in the back-row that finished the autumn series.
Although Howley said the Irish selection had no bearing on the Welsh line-up, aside from giving the pack more balance, Shingler also provides another lineout option to counter the threat posed by the selection of Peter O’Mahony.
As expected, Dan Biggar plays his first Six Nations game in the absence of Rhys Priestland in what is otherwise the same potent and bruising backline which played through their Grand Slam success, with Howley confirming that fullback Leigh Halfpenny will continue with the place-kicking duties.
Amongst the replacements is the uncapped Harlequins lock Olly Kohn. Born in Bristol, the 31-year-old Kohn has Welsh qualification through his late grandfather, who hailed from the Rhymney Valley.
Grand Slam campaign
For all their injury woes, the Welsh starting XV still retains 10 of the team which kicked off last season’s Grand Slam campaign with a 23-21 win at the Aviva Stadium and, with 558 Test caps between them, is still marginally more experienced than the Irish team (517 Tests).
Wales go into this game seeking to avoid an eighth successive defeat, which would be their worst run since 2003, and with the confidence of their national team reflecting that of their regions’ dismal form in Europe, but Howley intimated that they were intent on expanding on the surprisingly blunt running game and cautious emphasis on kicking in their autumn games.
“The intention is to go for it this championship. The speed of ball will depend on the conditions but the focus of our game is ball in hand and put them under pressure with our passing game. We passed considerably more times than Ireland in the Aviva last year. We expect an aerial battle as well: there will be times when all bets are off and you need to put the ball in the air and it is getting those in-game decisions right.”
“When you have some consistency in your backline – Dan is the only change from last year – you are able to be flexible in players playing off each other and unlocking what is a very good defensive 10/12/13 who have played a lot together,” added Howley.
“The key is unlocking them and we have been working on that this week and I am sure the players are confident of delivering on the weekend.”
Wales XV v Ireland
15 Leigh Halfpenny (Blues)
14 George North (Scarlets)
13 Jonathan Davies (Scarlets)
12 Jamie Roberts (Blues)
11 Alex Cuthbert (Blues)
10 Dan Biggar (Ospreys)
9 Mike Phillips (Bayonne)
1 Gethin Jenkins (Toulon)
2 Matthew Rees (Scarlets)
3 Adam Jones (Ospreys)
4 Ian Evans (Ospreys)
5 Andrew Coombs (Dragons)
6 Aaron Shingler (Scarlets)
7 Sam Warburton (Blues)
8 Toby Faletau (Dragons)
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), P James (Bath), C Mitchell (Exeter), O Kohn (Harlequins), J Tipuric (Ospreys), L Williams (Cardiff), J Hook (Perpignan), S Williams (Scarlets).