I always love this time of year, even more so this year with the Covid-19 restrictions of deep winter lifted. The sound of Welsh accents roaming around the streets of Dublin must mean only one thing. The Guinness Six Nations tournament is upon us.
Several seasoned Irish pundits have suggested a comfortable outing for Ireland but Hawkeye Sidekick is not so sure given the team selections announced today. Hawkeye Sidekick takes up the narrative.
Ireland hand Connacht Rugby’s Mack Hansen a debut for this opening Guinness Six Nations encounter. Hansen has made quite the attacking impact for Connacht Rugby, scoring some outstanding tries and providing superb attacking width.
The defensive side of the ball has shown weak points so it will be interesting to see how Hansen copes with the aerial bombardment as well as the defensive reads which he will need to make during this test match. Earls, Larmour, Baloucoune are omitted.
Wales have made the decision to switch Josh Adams to the three quarters. An interesting move but with Jonathan Davies not in the squad, Wayne Pivac needed experience and ball carrying threat to accompany Nick Tompkins in midfield.
Dewi Lake looks poised to make his debut coming off the bench. Six British and Irish Lions in the starting lineup. A lineup with mobility, pace and ambition with ball in hand.
Ireland: Few surprises except for back three and three quarters unit selections
Ireland have not tinkered too much from the nucleus of the side from last November’s test match series. There are few surprises as the front row unit and back row units are settled and performing well.
A slight question mark on the second row given the lack of game time for James Ryan. I also question how cohesive a second unit it is with James Ryan and the ever versatile Tadhg Beirne. You would expect Iain Henderson (if fit) to come into the starting lineup against France for round two.
Ronan Kelleher gets the nod for Ireland at hooker. His open play, work rate is superb but Wales will target his lineout throwing. Kelleher has worked hard to address this side of his game so it will be interesting to see if Ireland can secure quality lineout set piece ball to allow Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton to unleash his three quarters.
The only other surprise apart from Hansen’s inclusion is the three quarter pairing. Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose get the nod for round one as Robbie Henshaw does not even make the matchday squad. The unit is stacked with talent so it is up to Aki and Ringrose to set the standard and look to secure the jersey for the remainder of the tournament.
The back three does look genuinely exciting. Hugo Keenan has continued to progress well at full back. His impact hitting the line has been so good this term for Leinster Rugby and Ireland. Andrew Conway and Mack Hansen will provide superb attacking width for Ireland if given good quick ruck ball. Hansen as mentioned will need to execute his defensive duties well, his attacking instinct is superb and should see the player given opportunities.
The bench options for Ireland look strong albeit question marks on how match fit Joey Carbery actually is? Carbery has not lined out for Munster Rugby this year and is now thrust into a test match. It is a risk. What does this say for Jack Carty given these circumstances?
I am delighted James Hume gets his opportunity as he looks destined to come on off the bench. A super player to come in and make an impact in the second half when Wales defensively may start to fatigue.
Massive experience on the bench with the likes of Murray, Healy, O’Mahony combined with the exciting talent in the pack and back line. Carbery if fit will game manage effectively but until he performs, we won’t how match fit the player will be?
Wales: Pack leadership diminished but still a quality side
The Welsh front five for so many years has had Ken Owens and Alun-Wyn Jones for monster leadership. With both players not available for selection, it is now up to the rest of the front five squad to take up the leader mantle. A big day for Scarlets hooker Ryan Elias and Will Rowlands to come in and make a positive impact.
Wayne Pivac has resisted to recall Ross Moriarty. The player has just come back from injury so an impact off the bench is a prudent move. The bench options for Wales are exciting if this test match is in the melting point going into the final quarter.
There is game management versatility with the inclusion of Callum Sheedy, Gareth Davies and Owen Watkin if attacking play needs to be switched up.
Ross Moriarty and Seb Davies are excellent options to come off the bench to consolidate the second row and back row units. The front row replacements have youth and potential on their side. Dewi Lake is a strong player.
Wales have produced magnificent back row players in recent years. Their backrow unit selected this weekend has pace, power and physicality around breakdown and ball carries.
Watch out for Taine Basham, the Dragons back row is an exceptional talent. Ellis Jenkins is a born leader, his recovery from multiple injury setbacks should be an inspiration to those around him. Jenkins leads by example. Aaron Wainwright is unsung and is a super strong ball carrier and effective in the breakdown.
The focus for Wales will be to stifle Ireland’s ruck ball. Gibson-Park cannot be allowed to create tempo and expose Tompkins and Adams to an early onslaught.
Wales have weapons in the back field to do Ireland damage. Williams, McNicholl and Rees-Zammit have the pace and skill to unlock Ireland if provided with good early ball.
It is the opening round fixture of the Guinness Six Nations tournament. The weather will be breezy in Dublin, potential game of two halves so kicking game will be crucial to establish territorial platform early. Plenty of subplots in terms of new personnel, positional switches.
Ireland probably favorites to win but given this Welsh side, it would not surprise me one bit that Wales pull out a result here. I will edge it to Ireland as the performance could be a mixed bag of the good and the bad. Opening day cohesion issues the order of the day.
November is gone, it is now time for the players to deliver. It looks poised for a magnificent test match at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland to win by 7 points. I am a bit cautious on this fixture for Ireland. Wales always deliver in this tournament and I expect nothing else on Saturday. That bit of experience from Ireland off the bench may be pivotal in the closing stages.