Dan Sheridan/INPHO Johnny Sexton yesterday in Cardiff.
# Opening Day
Gatland's return gives Wales bounce but Ireland are deserved favourites
Andy Farrell’s men will be targetting a Six Nations title and it all starts in Cardiff this afternoon.

GATS IS BACK and it has made this week all the more interesting. He has ticked lots of the boxes we expected him to address.

Calling on experience? Check. Gatland’s starting team includes 936 Test caps compared to Ireland’s 566 for today’s Six Nations opener at a sold-out Principality Stadium [KO 2.15pm, Virgin Media].

There are three centurions in George North, Dan Biggar, and Alun Wyn Jones, with a few others close to joining that elite company. There have been lots of Dad’s Army jokes but Gatland believes these veterans who were key for him in his first tenure can be rallied again.

Stressing that Ireland are big favourites and that Wales have a free shot here? Check. Gatland has been more than happy to grab the underdogs tag.

Highlighting how Ireland have struggled against the most physical teams? Check. Gatland used his column in the Daily Telegraph to highlight Irish and Leinster defeats as he promised Andy Farrell’s side an almighty test of their mettle. 

In fairness, Gatland admitted that he probably made a mistake in not selecting Johnny Sexton for the 2021 Lions tour but we can safely say those niceties won’t extend to the pitch. As he returns from a facial injury for his first game since New Year’s Day, Ireland skipper Sexton can expect to be target number one for the Welsh.

Gatland has faith that home advantage at the Principality Stadium can inspire the Welsh to cause an upset against the number-one-ranked team in the world. He knows that Ireland’s record in Cardiff isn’t great – their last Six Nations win at this venue was a decade ago – and he clearly relishes the chance to shut them down.

But Farrell’s team have confidence in how they go about their business. Their phase play attack is game-leading, with Farrell’s vision in that area proving to be so impressive. Attack coach Mike Catt has worked on the details that allow the big picture to look so well put together.

wales-fans-during-the-national-anthem Andrew Fosker / INPHO Wales fans at the Principality Stadium. Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

In the recent ‘Tackling the All Blacks’ documentary about their series success in New Zealand last summer, left wing James Lowe pointed out that Ireland don’t really have payers who can cut through a defence and score a 60-metre try out of nowhere.

“We get them by sticking to the system and everyone knowing exactly what to do and making the right decisions,” said Lowe. “That’s how we beat teams.”

Farrell has backed his players to make decisions for themselves and there is autonomy, but it’s all in the context of the system. Ireland drill and drill and drill the shapes and plays that we have seen work so wonderfully in attack. There are generally two or three options for the player on the ball and he has responsibility for making the right decision based on how the defence and his team-mates are set up. It’s simple in conception but it’s not easy to get it right as regularly as Ireland have.

Farrell has been encouraged by the quality of Ireland’s build-up to this Six Nations, hailing their 10-day camp in Portugal as the best window of preparation yet in his time in charge.

Wales’ job is to mess it all up. The Wallabies did that particularly well last November, causing chaos at the breakdown, and Ireland struggled to get into the kind of flow that allows them to shred teams [Sexton missing didn’t help, as is always the case]. Gatland and his new defence coach Mike Forshaw – who he had never met before hiring for the Wales job – will surely have a plan to do something similar. Jackals like Justin Tipuric and Jac Morgan could be a thorn in Ireland’s side.

That’s why they will need other areas of their game firing. Catt will hope Ireland’s first-phase attack can do more damage this year. Leinster have shown the value of investing time into their lineout strikes and five-metre tap penalty routines, both of which have been superb this season.

The kick battle will be central today, with Ireland expecting plenty of bombs from Dan Biggar and co. to test them amidst the volume and humidity of the closed roof. Ireland will look to find disconnection in Wales’ backfield defence, particularly with the inexperienced Rio Dyer starting on the left wing.

With Tadhg Furlong missing, Wales will fancy their chances of getting a nudge on at the scrum, which has been an intermittent weakness in Ireland’s armoury. It’s a huge day for Finlay Bealham as he makes his first Six Nations start, while Farrell will hope to see Ulster man Tom O’Toole make a statement if called upon off the bench for his maiden Six Nations appearance.

finlay-bealham Dan Sheridan / INPHO Finlay Bealham in Cardiff yesterday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Meanwhile, one suspects that forwards coach Paul O’Connell and his lineout leader James Ryan have been working hard on the Irish maul. Making gains, denying Welsh momentum, and scoring at least one try in that department will be a big goal. Detail is everything here and the memory of Robbie Henshaw joining a maul ahead of the ball back in 2017 at this venue is still strong.

That day was one of three defeats for Ireland in their last four visits to Cardiff. Whatever about the recent Welsh travails and the undoubted chaos within their rugby system, you’d be surprised if they don’t get a bounce from Gatland’s return. He is still a master motivator.

For that reason, it might not be the prettiest but Ireland deserve to be favourites for this one. They have better individual players and a level of cohesion that is the envy of everyone else. As the caps tally indicates, this Ireland team has undergone quite a lot of change in the past three years. While there is always clamour for more fresh faces, Farrell has handed out 30 debuts and settled on the men he feels can make a difference.

Caelan Doris, Hugo Keenan, Dan Sheehan, James Lowe, Mack Hansen, and Jamison Gibson-Park have developed into excellent Test players, while Stuart McCloskey continues to grow as a force. Some of those previously involved, like Tadhg Beirne, Garry Ringrose, and Andrew Porter, have taken on leading roles. And the old heads like Sexton and Peter O’Mahony have looked rejuvenated over the last couple of seasons.

Farrell’s men have been on the rise for two years. Now it’s time to turn that progress into a Six Nations title, so starting with a win in Cardiff is crucial.


  • 15. Liam Williams
  • 14. Josh Adams
  • 13. George North
  • 12. Joe Hawkins
  • 11. Rio Dyer
  • 10. Dan Biggar
  • 9. Tomos Williams
  • 1. Gareth Thomas
  • 2. Ken Owens (captain)
  • 3. Tomas Francis
  • 4. Adam Beard
  • 5. Alun Wyn Jones
  • 6. Jac Morgan
  • 7. Justin Tipuric
  • 8. Taulupe Faletau


  • 16. Scott Baldwin
  • 17. Rhys Carré
  • 18. Dillon Lewis
  • 19. Dafydd Jenkins
  • 20. Tommy Reffell
  • 21. Rhys Webb
  • 22. Owen Williams
  • 23. Alex Cuthbert


  • 15. Hugo Keenan
  • 14. Mack Hansen
  • 13. Garry Ringrose
  • 12. Stuart McCloskey
  • 11. James Lowe
  • 10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
  • 9. Jamison Gibson-Park
  • 1. Andrew Porter
  • 2. Dan Sheehan
  • 3. Finlay Bealham
  • 4. Tadhg Beirne
  • 5. James Ryan
  • 6. Peter O’Mahony
  • 7. Josh van der Flier
  • 8. Caelan Doris


  • 16. Rob Herring
  • 17. Cian Healy
  • 18. Tom O’Toole
  • 19. Iain Henderson
  • 20. Jack Conan
  • 21. Conor Murray
  • 22. Ross Byrne
  • 23. Bundee Aki

Referee: Karl Dickson [RFU].

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