Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Date: Sunday, February 7th, 2021
Ireland is a team in transition as their last year was what you would expect from a team with a new head coach at the beginning of a World Cup cycle. Their system was set around small amounts of phase play followed by accurate box kicking to create a contest in the air, but this has transitioned into more of an approach where the Irish look to contest the ball on the ground and get physical. Adding former Lions captain Paul O’Connell to help teach that mentality in the pack seems like a shrewd move, especially with the Irish having lost that battle of physicality with the big packs of England and France last season. Half-back is also a question for Ireland with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray both trying to hold off challenges from younger players with their whole careers ahead of them.
Wales have won exactly three matches since Wayne Pivac’s first Six Nations began last year. Two wins over Italy – Six Nations and Autumn Nation’s Cup – and a win over Georgia in the latter competition mean that Pivac comes into this tournament needing to beat the Italians again and pick up another scalp along the way. Warren Gatland overachieved for years with a methodical style of play, but while Pivac has undoubtedly bought more flair to the table the results just aren’t there. Expect to see Wales revert to tried and tested with the likes of Dan Lydiate and Ken Owens being drafted back into the squad as much of the failure of last year was due to poor play in the set-piece and at the breakdown.
The big news coming out of the Welsh camp is the discipline handed down to starting winger Josh Adams this week. Adams – who has scored 14 tries in 29 Tests for his country – committed a breach of Covid-19 protocols by attending a family gathering on Sunday after the team had been released from training camp on Saturday. Adams was given a two-match suspension and his absence means that the Welsh will be without two of their starting back three as Liam Williams is also suspended. Outside center Jonathan Davis is also a question mark through an injury picked up a couple of weeks ago, so the lineup may see George North playing in the center – something he did to great success in the autumn – with the speed merchant Louis Reed-Zammit on one flank and Hallam Amos on the other.
Ireland will be without two members of their pack for this opening fixture after both were ruled out through injury. Leinster back row Caelan Doris has returned to the province after suffering from concussion symptoms, while lock Quinn Roux has been sidelined by a back injury. The withdrawals mean that flanker Gavin Coombes (Munster) and lock Ryan Baird (Leinster) have been added to the Ireland training squad for at least this first match. In better news for Ireland, former IRB World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton has been training with the squad after recovering from a minor muscle injury. The fly-half looks set to play against Wales and resume his regular role as the captain of his nation.
Missing Doris will be an issue for Ireland as the 22-year-old back-row may have been the best player in the entire team over the course of the Autumn Nations Cup. The Wales absentees are, however, more concerning. These are two teams in a state of flux – or a mess if you want to be technical in the case of Wales – and while Wales would be in with more of a chance in a full Principality Stadium as opposed to the shell we will see on Sunday it just feels like Ireland will have too much here.