Preview: Ireland v Wales

Date published: August 28 2015

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The big guns are back as Ireland and Wales meet again in Dublin for their penultimate warm-up match before the Rugby World Cup.

Irish captain Paul O'Connell returns along with a host of other first choice players for Ireland with Peter O'Mahony, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney all starting.

Warren Gatland's side meanwhile is almost the strongest Wales currently possess, save for the absence of Sam Warburton and a new cap in Tomas Francis of Exeter Chiefs.

Neither side have confirmed their final squads for the tournament but Saturday's selections feel more about giving leading players valuable minutes with only one friendly left the following weekend before the World Cup begins.

Only nine players combined remain from the starting XVs in the previous match between these two in Cardiff, but Wales were comfortably outplayed that day as late tries from Justin Tipuric and Alex Cuthbert patched over their flaws.

Eight of the side that thrashed Italy 61-20 at the end of the Six Nations are back and Wales will hope that half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar will play at the same high level they produced back in February and March.

The midfield combo of Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams though will be under greater scrutiny as they pair up again for the first time since last November's Test against Fiji.

Williams captained Wales in the previous fixture and with Jonathan Davies out of the picture through injury Gatland will want to see the combination gel again with ease.

Ken Owens has a chance to lay down a marker at hooker after Scott Baldwin's impressive run at the end of the Six Nations, but perhaps the most exciting player in the Welsh 23 is Hallam Amos.

The 20-year-old Dragons back could be a star of the World Cup just as George North was four years ago, if he makes the final squad of 31. 

Joe Schmidt on the other hand will be eager to see three experienced backs in particular come through unscathed on their return.

Dave Kearney slots into Ireland's back three having been a key cog in the 2014 Six Nations triumph, while Luke Fitzgerald gets another run but at outside centre where he hasn't started since November 2008.

Keith Earls completes the set. The Munster back was lethal in Cardiff in the 13 shirt but returns to the wing where he can pose a major challenge to land a starting spot for the Rugby World Cup should he produce again on Saturday.

Earls and Kearney also get a chance to impress Schmidt while Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble build up match fitness playing for Ulster.

Perhaps most importantly though from an Irish perspective, Saturday will be an extra special moment as the nations says goodbye to captain O'Connell in his last home Test. It should be an emotional farewell and Ireland defence coach Les Kiss paid him a fine tribute this week:

"I've coached him for seven years now and I speak on behalf of the other coaches when I say that he's an inspiration.

"He deserves a good send-off and hopefully we can deliver that. He's a special person in terms of his leadership and what he does on the rugby pitch.

"But the type of person he is around the environment with all the stakeholders in the game and the fans is brilliant."

Players to watch:

For Ireland: Mike Ross gets a break having featured in the first two warm-up matches meaning a start for Nathan White. The New Zealand-born tighthead's chance comes along at last after bad luck with injuries. Saturday will only be his second cap but the 33-year-old has been handed a huge opportunity to convince Schmidt that he is worth taking in the final squad. Ireland's prop situation is unclear with Michael Bent set to turn out for Leinster and Marty Moore recovering from injury. A strong performance would be tough to ignore. 

For Wales: Tomas Francis gets a chance on debut to back up the high praise he has receieved from the Welsh management for his work in training camp but all eyes will be on George North to see how the world class winger goes on his return to action. North's medical condition earlier this year was a genuine worry so it's encouraging to see him back in the starting XV. Saturday will be his 50th cap for Wales and a 23rd try for his country would be a fine way to mark it, with Gatland suggesting this week that the best is yet to come: 

"I can remember seeing him as an 18-year-old playing for the Scarlets. I said: 'look, we have to cap him as soon as possible – there is a freakish talent there'.

"I don't think we've seen the full extent of the potential he has as a player. And we still haven't ruled out in the future that he could be an outstanding centre as well."

Head-to-head: The two opensides, as Ireland's Jordi Murphy takes the seven shirt from Chris Henry. Murphy's flexibility across the back row makes him a valuable asset for a World Cup squad and the Leinster player born in Barcelona has a shot to convince Schmidt that he has to go to England. 

Opposite Murphy is Justin Tipuric, who did score a fine try in the last meeting and was one of Wales' best players, but came in for criticism for the way both he and Wales were outplayed at the breakdown, and not without cause. This is only Tipuric's 12th start in his 33rd Test for his country and as good as his skill-set is, Wales need him to dominate the ruck area.

Prediction: Given this is the first game in some months for many players it may take a while for both sides to slot into gear, but Ireland should have enough to keep Wales at bay. Ireland by 6!

The teams:

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Dave Kearney, 13 Luke Fitzgerald, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Nathan White, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Sean O'Brien, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Felix Jones

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Gethin Jenkins
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 James King, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Hallam Amos

Date: Saturday, August 29
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 14:30 local (13:30 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

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