The Autumn Nations Cup might already be thrown into chaos before a ball has even been kicked, with France v Fiji called off due to a coronavirus outbreak in the Pacific Island side’s camp, but Wales will get on-field action underway with a trip to Ireland tonight, 7pm kick-off.
This exhibition tournament will not mean anything in the grand scheme of international rugby, but the next few weeks may well play a big role in deciding the future of the Wales team, with Wayne Pivac’s men on a five-game losing streak culminating in the loss to Scotland last time out.
That 10-14 defeat at Parc y Scarlets consigned Wales to a fifth place finish in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, just a year on from winning the Grand Slam and reach the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup, and has cost defence coach Byron Hayward his job with Gethin Jenkins filling the role on a temporary basis.
The men in red will be hoping to get back to winning ways at the Aviva Stadium, but it will be no mean feat as Wales haven’t won in Dublin outside of a World Cup warm-up since 2012, losing three and drawing one of the last four visits to the Emerald Isle.
Most recently, the Welshmen went down 24-14 to Ireland back in February of this year when tries from Tomos Williams and Justin Tipuric weren’t enough to overcome a powerful home side who at times bullied Wales to such an extent the contest resembled men versus boys.
Ireland have started this Autumn with a big win over Italy before going down narrowly 35-27 against France in Paris, both in the Six Nations, and head coach Andy Farrell has taken the chance to have a look at some new faces in his team for tonight’s game.
Seven changes to his starting XV see Ronan Kelleher get a first start at hooker, while Iain Henderson returns to the second row after serving a suspension. In the back row Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier are in as a new flanker pairing, while Caelan Doris switches around to number eight.
Jamison Gibson-Park makes his first start at scrum-half, while Chris Farrell gets the nod at outside centre with Robbie Henshaw switching to the 12 jersey. There is a debut test appearance for James Lowe on the wing after 33 tries in 49 games for Leinster over the last three years.
An experienced set of forwards on the bench see Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux and Will Connors have just 30 caps between them, while Ulster fly-half Billy Burns could make his test debut if brought on.
Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan, Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton (c), Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, Will Connors, Conor Murray, Billy Burns, Keith Earls
Despite being the side who have lost five-in-a-row coming into this game, Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has chosen to make no changes to the side that was announced to face Scotland two weeks ago.
There is one change to the side that actually took the field, with Justin Tipuric recovering from tonsillitis to replace James Davies, while the bench sees Elliot Dee cover hooker, Samson Lee as the tighthead prop option, Callum Sheedy set for a debut as fly-half cover and George North returning as the outside backs option.
Aside from that though it’s as you were with Tomas Francis set to win his 50th Wales cap and Alun Wyn Jones set to become the first man in history to reach 150 international caps.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, Owen Watkin, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Rhys Carre, Ryan Elias, Tomas Francis, Will Rowlands, Alun Wyn Jones, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Aaron Wainwright, Lloyd Williams, Callum Sheedy, George North
In what is set to be a dry Aviva Stadium tonight, Wales will need to meet the physical challenge that Ireland represent if they are to get anything out of this game. Repeatedly allowing them over the gain line and making no in-roads when we are in possession will sap the life out of us and allow the hosts to dictate the game.
Beyond that, the back line developing the confidence to play a bit with ball-in-hand would go a long way to easing pressure on Pivac and his coaching team. Even without a result, an improved performance would be something to show for a month in camp now during which the same mistakes that were made in February have been repeated against France and Scotland.
A win would be superb, but it’s going to be a case of walking before you can run with Wales. Let’s start stringing some good showings together and then the results should follow.