Talking points ahead of Wales’ Six Nations opener against Ireland
It promises to be a fascinating encounter, with Warren Gatland beginning his second spell as Wales head coach and Ireland arriving in the Welsh capital following a year that saw them rise to world rugby’s summit.
Can Ireland embrace expectation?
Ireland will arrive at the Principality Stadium as the world-ranked number-one team – a status they achieved last year following two stunning away victories over New Zealand, consolidated by autumn wins against South Africa and Australia. With that, though, comes increased pressure and expectation as Andy Farrell’s side find themselves billed as Six Nations title favourites.
Their last success in the competition on Welsh soil came 10 years ago, so Ireland know the degree of difficulty that awaits them, but they currently look capable of overcoming any challenge.
Warren Gatland’s Midas touch
Wales enjoyed a golden era when Gatland was head coach between 2008 and 2019, highlighted by four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals. The New Zealander is now back for more, replacing Wayne Pivac following a miserable 12 months when Wales won just three Tests and suffered humiliating home defeats against Italy and Georgia.
The form-guide suggests an Ireland victory, but it is also enticingly set up for Gatland and his players to put such a script through the shredder. The game and occasion is right up his street.
Battle of the magnificent sevens
Key individual contests will be littered around the Principality Stadium pitch on Saturday, but none catch the eye more than the battle between rival openside flankers Justin Tipuric and Josh van der Flier. Wales star Tipuric wins his 90th cap and it is more than 11 years since he first played Test rugby, with that priceless experience allied to a consistency of performance that few players can match at the highest level.
Current world player of the year Van der Flier – he is only the third Irishman to achieve that feat after Keith Wood and Johnny Sexton – offers similarly indispensable qualities, and like Tipuric, his form rarely dips. They are players of the finest calibre.
Start of the end for Sexton?
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton begins potentially the final year of his glittering career by going up against the man responsible for one of his biggest disappointments. The 37-year-old, who is expected to retire following the autumn World Cup in France, was devastated to be overlooked by Gatland for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
Sexton insists he does not hold a grudge regarding that painful snub, nor feel under pressure to prove a point. He has subsequently been in fine form and is arguably more important than ever to his country.
Ospreys to help Wales soar?
There is a degree of symmetry, provided by the Ospreys, between Gatland’s first game as Wales head coach 15 years ago and Saturday’s encounter that kicks off his second stint at the helm.
Gatland picked 13 Ospreys – the only exceptions were Scarlets wing Mark Jones and Cardiff flanker Martyn Williams – for Wales’ victorious 2008 Six Nations opener against England, and he has chosen eight in his starting XV this time around with combinations key through both centres, props, locks and flankers.
The Ospreys are fresh from notable victories over French champions Montpellier and English champions Leicester, so confidence is high. It could prove another selection master-stroke.
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