Ireland v Wales: Zebo, Stander and O’Donnell to start
Injuries force Joe Schmidt’s hand as he names side for Sunday’s clash in Dublin
Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien are the latest senior players ruled out of the opening Six Nations match against a well-stocked Welsh side. The Leinster duo - both hamstrung - are replaced by Munster pair Tommy O’Donnell and Simon Zebo.
CJ Stander will win his first cap, the South African being the third player in this Ireland team to qualify via the three year residency rule, on the blindside flank.
There are nine changes from the starting XV that lost 43-20 to Argentina during last October’s World Cup quarter-final. As the Welsh injury count clicked into double figures during that body-counting tournament the Irish camp continued to give Jared Payne hope of featuring despite fracturing his foot against Romania on September 27th.
Sunday will be Payne’s - another to qualify for Ireland via residency - first time playing outside centre since that Wembley fixture.
In the nightmarish weeks that followed the irreplaceable Paul O’Connell (and we are about to learn just what that means) was joined in the stands by Munster captain Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton and a suspended O’Brien.
Iain Henderson came in for O’Connell while Cian Healy was another world class forward just back from injury. Henderson and Healy are injured again with the latter poised to take up a £450,000 a year contract from Worcester next season.
Of all those names only Sexton, who has become a constant injury concern these past two years, is available to spearhead Schmidt’s third Six Nations campaign.
Kearney’s hamstring takes the most assured of high fielders out of Schmidt’s side for what promises to be an afternoon of aerial bombardment on Simon Zebo.
O’Brien’s loss, while incalculable, provides opportunity for O’Donnell who missed the entire World Cup after sustaining a gruesome hip injury against Wales last August but he has been impressive since returning for Munster in recent weeks.
However, O’Donnell has a daunting challenge as Wales embrace the Wallabies model of fielding two opensides in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. That Warren Gatland can hold Dan Lydiate, Bradley Davies and Gethin Jenkins in reserve tells us all we need to know how the enormity of Sunday’s task for Ireland under new captain Rory Best.
Best’s pack has been further decimated by Mike Ross and Marty Moore injuries so the new tighthead is 34 year old Nathan White - the third foreign recruit - with 23-year-old Tadhg Furlong expected to come off the bench around the same time as Jenkins.
This could be a long afternoon with Paris six days later with a few more promised casualties.
Ireland (v Wales, Sunday, 3pm): S Zebo (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), K Earls (Munster), J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), N White (Connacht), D Toner, M McCarthy (both Leinster), CJ Stander, T O’Donnell (both Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), T Furlong (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), R Ruddock (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), I Madigan, D Kearney (both Leinster)
Wales: G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues); G North (Northampton), J Davies (Clermont Auvergne), J Roberts (Harlequins), T James (Cardiff Blues); D Biggar (Ospreys), G Davies (Scarlets); R Evans (Scarlets), S Baldwin (Ospreys), S Lee (Scarlets), L Charteris (Racing 92), A-W Jones (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons). Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), T Francis (Exeter), B Davies (Wasps), D Lydiate (Ospreys), L Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Priestland (Bath), A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues).
Ireland v Argentina (2015 WC QF): R Kearney; T Bowe (L Fitzgerald), K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney; I Madigan, C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath), R Best (R Strauss), M Ross (N White); I Henderson (D Ryan), D Toner; J Murphy (R Ruddock), C Henry, J Heaslip.
Ireland v Wales (2015 Six Nations): R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan), C Murray (E Reddan); J McGrath (C Healy), R Best (S Cronin), M Ross (M Moore); D Toner (I Henderson), P O’Connell (capt); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip (J Murphy).