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Cardiff presents ideal opportunity for Farrell's Ireland to kick-start year two

Ireland haven’t won a Six Nations game in Cardiff since Brian O’Driscoll was about, but Farrell has picked a team to be brave.

WHETHER YOU’RE INCLINED to call it the Principality, the Millennium or an interstellar cruise-liner docked next to the Arm’s Park, the word ‘Cardiff’ is all that’s needed to conjure a wealth of recent Irish rugby nostalgia.

Late drop goals, Heineken Cups, humbling defeats to rampant reds and a cherished Grand Slam of our own. By 2013, with five wins from seven clashes against Wales in their new ground, it felt like a place where Irish teams could handle anything thrown at them.

ronan-ogara Ronan O'Gara celebrates a winning drop-goal in 2003. Source: INPHO

Eight long years have passed since Ireland last beat Wales on their own patch in anything other than a pre-World Cup warm-up. These were years with no shortage of success: three Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and global recognition as a force to be reckoned with, but Joe Schmidt’s Cardiff recollections are not as sweet as Ireland’s collective memory.

2015, before being pummeled by the Pumas at the venue in that year’s World Cup, Schmidt had Ireland on pace to deliver an emphatic Six Nations title defence by way of Grand Slam.

He entered Cardiff with three wins from three, but left it bemoaning Wayne Barnes after Leigh Halfpenny kicked open a sizeable lead and a late scrum penalty denied Ireland a chance to cross out the seven-point deficit.

In 2017 the sides met in round four again, but neither were in such  rude health. A debacle over an Edinburgh bus made a mockery of Irish attention to detail. Wales had also lost to the Scots by the time Ireland arrived on their doorstep. Robbie Henshaw was left in the Laws of the Game confessional booth after scuppering a late Irish maul on the verge of a try, but serious damage had already been sustained to Irish title hopes and Conor Murray’s shoulder before half-time. The scrum-half laboured on with the issue for five second half minutes before Kieran Marmion was called in to aid a resurgence.

The less said about 2019 the better. All the warning signs for a woeful World Cup were already manifest in the spring; a team trying to talk its way into form and title contention before being thoroughly hosed.

All in all, Cardiff has been a fairly miserable spot in recent Irish rugby history. Today (kick-off 3pm, Virgin Media) is Andy Farrell’s chance to change the tune.

Scotland have made this a fine weekend for droughts to end and there will never be as ripe an opportunity to pick off Wales at this venue with the host’s patchy form, depleted personnel and absence of a crowd to make the Principality a cauldron. Mind you, even without a crowd, this won’t exactly be a sterile arena. The roof will be open in cold conditions and the newly laid pitch will provide the bumps in the road.

james-lowe-and-hugo-keenan James Lowe and Hugo Keenan in training this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Although Farrell urged some caution in drawing attention to the eight-year-gap Ireland need to bridge today, the fingerprints of a man willing to err on the side of adventure are on his opening starting line-up of the Championship with James Lowe and Hugo Keenan trusted in the back-field on Six Nations debut and former Scarlets favourite Tadhg Beirne deployed next to James Ryan.

Four more of the men who made their Test debut last year are alongside the returning Tadhg Furlong on the bench, but otherwise the head coach has been able to choose from tried and tested stalwarts who bring the added benefit of being in form.

Wales coach Wayne Pivac this week noted that ‘there is less discussion and more work being done’ by way of differentiating this setup from the autumn. However that bears out after the first whistle, this Welsh pack won’t want for experience and grizzle with a black-eyed Alun Wyn Jones leading and Justin Tipuric, Ken Owens and Taulupe Faletau setting out to disrupt Ireland’s rhythm.

Josh Adams made himself a high-profile absentee – another victim to the scourge of gender-reveal parties – but with 20-year-old Gloucester flyer Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing, there is potency in the home side’s back three. It’s in the centre where Ireland appear to have a clear edge. Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are reunited in green for the first time since the World Cup and they will hope their partnership can expose a new combination of George North and Johnny Williams.

Speaking after Ireland’s captain’s run yesterday, Simon Easterby lamented slow starts that had cost Ireland in defeats here in 2015, 2017 and 2019. 

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Having spent his first year speaking about how his team must get better at being adaptable and be able to cope with changing situations, Farrell will be determined that his team won’t be deterred by early scoreboard pressure. 

Victory by almost any route would be a sign of this team’s progress at the beginning of year two under Farrell.

Wales:

15. Leigh Halfpenny
14. Louis Rees-Zammit
13. George North
12. Johnny Williams
11. Hallam Amos
10. Dan Biggar
9. Tomos Williams

1. Wyn Jones
2. Ken Owens
3. Tomas Francis
4. Adam Beard
5. Alun Wyn Jones (captain)
6. Dan Lydiate
7. Justin Tipuric
8. Taulupe Faletau

Replacements:

16. Elliot Dee
17. Rhodri Jones
18. Leon Brown
19. Will Rowlands
20. Josh Navidi
21. Gareth Davies
22. Callum Sheedy
23. Nick Tompkins

Ireland:

15: Hugo Keenan
14: Keith Earls
13: Garry Ringrose
12: Robbie Henshaw
11: James Lowe
10: Johnny Sexton (Captain)
9: Conor Murray

1: Cian Healy
2: Rob Herring
3: Andrew Porter
4: Tadhg Beirne
5: James Ryan
6: Peter O’Mahony
7: Josh Van Der Flier
8: CJ Stander

Replacements

16: Ronan Kelleher
17: Dave Kilcoyne
18: Tadhg Furlong
19: Iain Henderson
20: Will Connors
21: Jamison-Gibson Park
22: Billy Burns
23: Jordan Larmour

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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