Wales v Ireland, Principality Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday, 2.15 – Live on Virgin Media, BBC and S4C
Ireland have been here before, so to speak. Seemingly riding the crest of a wave, more settled, more proven, in better form and warm favourites. But of late it’s counted for very little in the Cardiff cauldron, and as a wise man once said, those who ignore the lessons of history are apt to repeat them.
Wales have come off the back of a dismal year, with nine defeats in a dozen Tests, including here by both Italy and Georgia. Yet Wales are, well, Wales and it doesn’t take much to put some wind in their sails.
So it is that the home fans will descend upon their capital in their tens of thousands from the valleys and all around, turning Cardiff and the enclosed 74,500 Principality Stadium into a sea of red. And they’ll do so with a renewed sense of optimism that Warren Gatland will have a similarly galvanising effect on his team.
Each match assumes its own unique storyline and this 2023 Guinness Six Nations opener is well capable of doing so. With one early try or a few early penalties, as has tended to happen here in this fixture of late, suddenly all the Welsh travails on the pitch last year and off it this year, will be cast aside completely.
This all-Celtic affair is also traditionally the most fiendishly unpredictable Six Nations matchup of them all. In a particularly illogical and bizarre sequence of 18 Championship meetings between 1984 and 2001, there were only two home wins, with one draw and 15 away wins. It just made no sense.
Save for Ireland winning seven of the next nine Championship clashes, there was no real pattern for the next while, save for a lack of one, but since 2013 there has been no away victory in the last nine Six Nations meetings.
In addition to a 16-16 draw in Dublin in 2016, the two countries have traded four home wins apiece.
So, in an era when Ireland have been consistently been in the top half and thrice champions, and have won in the Stade de France, Twickenham, Murrayfield and the Stadio Olimpico, while usually outperforming Wales, not least at provincial/regional level, the Principality Stadium has been their bogey ground.
It was the one stadium where Joe Schmidt had no Six Nations wins with Ireland, losing on all three occasions. Even Andy Farrell, who recalled losing at the ground with both Wigan and Saracens, has been on the losing side three times, twice as defence coach and as head coach here two years ago.
“It’s a tough place to go, the Welsh are obviously not just a proud nation, they know a thing or two about how to handle the big occasion,” said the Ireland head coach.
“I think at the start of a competition it’s very hard to get up to be at your best straight away. It’s something that we’ve worked hard on over the last 18 months or so and hopefully we can hit the ground running in that regard.”
Even ignoring history, a strong start appears particularly important for this game, especially considering Wales’ lead-in to this pivotal opener.
Were Ireland to break with tradition hereabout and start the stronger, it may just dilute the Welsh fervour on the pitch and in the stands. For all Gatland’s rallying call to many of his older guard such as Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Bigger and co, the Welsh matchday squad (28.8) has a similar average age to Ireland (29.3), and similar caps profile, with an average of 49.2 to Ireland’s 42.5.
Yet it would most likely be in Welsh interests to take a leaf out of the old Shaun Edwards and Gatland profile and apply ferocious line pressure on Johnny Sexton, carry hard and straight, keep the ball in play with their kicking game and look to slow Ireland’s game down.
With Jamison Gibson-Park the heartbeat, it is the speed of ruck ball for both Leinster and Ireland which opposing teams have struggled against. In last season’s Championship, Ireland was the only team to have an average ruck speed under three seconds (2.88).
The other caveat, of course, is that the whole tenor of a game can change in a flash not only due to an early try, but a red card.
World Rugby’s campaign for match officials to outlaw heads shots from the game is an entirely worthy one, and the reaction from some coaches suggests the penny still hasn’t entirely dropped. But there’s no doubt that red cards could again be a significant factor in this year’s Six Nations.
Between 2000 and 2019, there were only six red cards in the Six Nations but there have been nine in the past three seasons – two in 2022, five in 2021 and two more in 2020. Wales are the only team not to have incurred one.
Surprisingly, in four of those nine games, the team reduced to 14 men actually won, although the timing of cards were a mitigating factor. Peter O’Mahony’s 15th-minute dismissal here two years ago is a particularly pertinent case.
This Irish team was just about to embark upon a steep upward curve. Since a depleted side lost narrowly at home to France a week later Ireland have won 17 of their last 19 Tests.
A pack that was unchanged three times against the All Blacks and then the Springboks and Wallabies, must now cope without Tadhg Furlong. But the forwards still ooze quality, Sexton is at the helm and James Lowe is back to add his X-factor.
Logic says the superior quality of Ireland’s players should ultimately tell, even if that hasn’t always applied in the recent past.
WALES: Liam Williams (Cardiff); Josh Adams (Cardiff), George North (Ospreys), Joe Hawkins (Ospreys), Rio Dyer (Dragons); Dan Biggar (Toulon), Tomos Williams (Cardiff); Gareth Thomas (Ospreys), Ken Owens (Scarlets, capt), Tomas Francis (Ospreys); Adam Beard (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys); Jac Morgan (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Taulupe Faletau (Cardiff).
Replacements: Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Rhys Carre (Cardiff), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff), Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs), Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Owen Williams (Ospreys), Alex Cuthbert (Ospreys).
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Tom O’Toole (Ulster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht).
Referee: Karl Dickson (England).
Referee assistants: Luke Pearce (England), Angus Gardner (Australia).
TMO: Tom Foley (England).
Overall head-to-head: Played 155. Wales 70 wins. Ireland 56 wins. 7 draws.
Last five meetings: Ireland 19 Wales 10 (World Cup warm-up). Ireland 24 Wales 14 (2020 6N). Ireland 32 Wales 9 (Autumn Nations Cup). Wales 21 Ireland 16 (2021 6n). Ireland 29 Wales 17 (2022 6N0.
Five-game form guide: Wales: L 14-30 v South Africa (a). L 23-55 v New Zealand (h). W 20-13 v Argentina (h). L 12-13 v Georgia (h). L 34-39 v Australia (h).
Ireland: W 23-12 v New Zealand (a). W 32-22 v New Zealand (a). W 19-16 v South Africa (h). 35-17 v Fiji (h). W 13-10 v Australia (h).
Match betting (Paddy Power): 21-10 Wales, 17-1 Draw, 4-9 Ireland. Handicap odds (Wales 6pts) 10-11 Wales, 20-1 Draw, 10-11 Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.