Ireland will aim to avenge their World Cup quarter-final defeat by Wales when the two sides go head to head in the Six Nations.
Ireland will aim to avenge their World Cup quarter-final defeat by Wales when the two sides go head to head in their Six Nations opener at Aviva Stadium on Sunday.
The visit of the Welsh to Dublin is a perfect opening match for the Irish, who will no doubt still be haunted by their failure to turn up in the RWC knock-out clash nearly four months ago.
Wales claimed a deserved 22-10 win over their Celtic cousins, and now Ireland have the opportunity for swift revenge and a chance to extend their visitors' losing run to four Tests since Warren Gatland's troops broke Irish hearts in New Zealand's capital.
And as if avoiding a fourth consecutive defeat at the home of Irish rugby isn't hard enough, Wales will have to do so without several key players as the injury list continues to grow with Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Lloyd Burns, Luke Charteris and Alun-Wyn Jones already confirmed non-starters.
The situation could yet deteriorate from a fitness perspective as centre Jamie Roberts (knee), fly-half Rhys Priestland (knee) and flanker Dan Lydiate (ankle) are all racing against time.
Indeed, a series of untimely injuries has threatened to derail Wales' campaign before it has even began. Throw in the retirement of Shane Williams and Wales begin the Six Nations without almost half the team that destroyed Ireland's World Cup dream.
Fears from Ireland supporters of how their team will fare without inspirational captain and center Brian O'Driscoll – who will miss the entire tournament – have surely subsided compared to the sleepless nights Wales' fans must now be going through.
Of all the northern hemisphere teams at the World Cup, Wales were the most impressive and quite rightly tipped for Six Nations success heading into 2012. But fast forward to the present, and one wonders if the injury-savaged Dragons will be able to reach the heights they set on their way to the World Cup semi-final.
On the other end of the scale, Ireland coach Declan Kidney has been spoilt for choice in selecting his matchday 22 which sees only three changes – one positional – to the side that lost in Wellington. His only real headache was replacing the irreplaceable O'Driscoll, with Keith Earls eventually getting the nod at 13 which has been met with mixed response from Ireland's die-hard rugby followers.
Earls certainly has the talent, but the jury is still out on whether it's best served in midfield. That verdict will be reached after 80 minutes come kick-off on Sunday, along with a few other of Kidney's criticised selections that many perceive to be predictable and conservative with the head coach keeping faith in his established internationals.
In order to avoid the risk of Ireland losing in the opening round for the first time in seven seasons as well as a hat-trick of defeats at Aviva Stadium, Kidney has refused to gamble with his line-up and instead opted for the tried and tested to get their Six Nations campaign off to a winning start.
Ireland fans will also hope their national team can gain a psychological fillip from the strong Heineken Cup showings of Leinster, Munster and Ulster – who have all reached the quarter-finals – and build on the success of their Provincial sides.
It's certainly Ireland's for the taking as Wales limp into the Emerald Isle. And with a tough trip to Paris set to follow next weekend, it's also a game Kidney's troops can ill-afford to lose… especially considering Ireland's consistency – or lack of it – which continues to remain an issue for a side capable of humbling any nation on their day.
A defeat against the men in green wouldn't be the end of the world for Wales, who have tasted victory just once in Ireland (in 2008) since the turn of the century. But should Wales win without many of their stars, it could give them the confidence to push on with three of their last four matches all at home.
Ones to watch:
For Ireland: It's been a busy week for Keith Earls, who has been handed the daunting prospect of replacing the talismanic Brian O'Driscoll only days after witnessing the birth of his first child. It's hard to determine what's harder – filling one of the biggest boots in world rugby or changing dirty nappies? Both are huge responsibilities, but Earl's number one priority on Sunday will be proving his critics wrong who feel he's not the answer in midfield by transfering his Munster form in the Heineken Cup to the Six Nations.
For Wales: Tough to choose considering Wales' key players keep dropping like flies. Fly-half Rhys Priestland is one of several Welshmen in doubt as he battles to recover in time from a knee injury. However, Priestland's pain is James Hook's gain with the Perpignan back set for a reappearance in the critical fly-half role. Should Hook be involved on Sunday, the 26-year-old could be handed the goalkicking duties. Hook missed vital goal-kicks at the World Cup, and will need to be on target in Dublin – although Wales do have other options in Leigh Halfpenny.
Head to head: Wales' major concern will be to prevent Ireland's engine room stoking up a head of steam as the Irish forwards look to overwhelm the Welsh pack early on. The battle at the breakdown between Sam Warburton and Sean O'Brien will be a highlight – whoever wins in this area will help give their backs more point-scoring opportunities.
2011: Wales won 22-10 in Wellington (RWC)
2011: Wales won 19-13 in Cardiff
2010: Ireland won 27-12 in Dublin
2009: Ireland won 17-15 in Cardiff
2008: Wales won 16-12 in Dublin
2007: Ireland won 19-9 in Cardiff
Prediction: Despite Wales beating Ireland in last year's Six Nations – albeit aided by a controversial Mike Phillips try – and then eliminating them from World Cup contention, Ireland enter this clash as favourites. Expect the hosts to give their Celtic rivals a ferocious examination at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland to win by 10 points.
Ireland (revised):15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Fergus McFadden, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O'Connell (capt), 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 Peter O'Mahony, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 David Kearney.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Ryan Jones, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Huw Bennett, 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Andy Powell, 19 Justin Tipuric, 20 Lloyd Willians, 21 James Hook, 22 Scott Williams.
Date: Sunday, February 5