Dublin - There's a sense that Ireland's time is about to end in
the Six Nations.
Paul O'Connell has retired, and the departure of the inspirational
lock and captain has been compounded by an overflow of injuries, many of them
to veterans. Flanker Sean O'Brien and fullback Rob Kearney were the latest to
be hamstrung this week.
It means Ireland will start its bid on Sunday for an unprecedented
third successive Six Nations title with nine changes from the side over-run by
Argentina 43-20 in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals last October.
Maybe that's not a bad thing considering the result, but even
coach Joe Schmidt believes a top-three finish would represent success.
Coming across the Irish Sea is a Wales high on confidence and
belief. Its last two championship wins in Dublin, by four points in 2008 and by
two 2012, were en route to Grand Slams. The first Six Nations after the last
three World Cup have seen Grand Slam champions, and Wales has overtaken England
as the betting favourite to repeat.
The Welsh endured their own wretched injury toll before the World
Cup, but have got back enough of their best players to make British Lions
forwards Gethin Jenkins and Dan Lydiate wait in the reserves.
Together for more than three months for a World Cup which ended in
the quarterfinals, Wales finds it easy to pick up continuity, and regain its
groove. And having swept the Six Nations after the last two World Cups, it
knows what to do and how to do it.
"It's felt like just the other day we left our team hotel
outside London, and now we're back together," captain Sam Warburton says.
"When it comes to learning plays and getting back up to speed, that's
pretty easily done, and all that fitness work we did hopefully we can hold onto
throughout the tournament.
"Welsh fans are well aware we won Grand Slams after World
Cups, and I know that's what they are fully expecting this year. But that's
what the players would set as a target anyway."
Get past Ireland at Lansdowne Road, and the draw is in Wales' favour,
with three home games.
Ireland has a good draw, too, with three home games, and won the
title in 2014 and 2015 by sweeping aside all challengers at home.
But Wales holds no fear of Dublin, having won twice there in the
last four years. The key is to impose itself quickly to get the crowd out of it
or, as Warburton says, stick a pin in that balloon early. He vividly remembers
in 2014 when the Irish pack put a stranglehold on the ball and was roused by
the fans in romping to a 26-3 win.
Rain and gusts are in the forecast, which will put more of a
premium on the expected aerial duel. Ireland's Jonathan Sexton and counterpart
Dan Biggar will test the competence of opposing fullbacks Gareth Anscombe,
better known as a flyhalf, and usual Ireland backup Simon Zebo.
The clash in the centres between Jamie Roberts and Jonathan
Davies, who used to be the tyros not so long ago in this match, and Ireland's
still-developing duo of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, will be engrossing, as
will the tussle between the flankers: Warburton and flier Justin Tipuric, and
Ireland and Munster pair Tommy O'Donnell and CJ Stander, making his debut.
Between them, the teams have split the last four titles.
Championship credentials will be enhanced by the winner of this match.