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Dublin: 10°C Tuesday 18 May 2021
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Gatland targets Irish uncertainty with bold selection calls

Joe Schmidt has big selection calls of his own before the sides meet this weekend.

WALES HEAD COACH Warren Gatland named the first starting line-up of the Six Nations this morning, and he packed a fair few surprises in there.

Ireland and Wales are the most familiar of foes. And even though post-World Cups periods will always bring change, after four head-to-heads over the last 12 months we thought we knew exactly where Gatty would go.

Jamie Heaslip with Rob Evans Evans in action during Wales win over Ireland in last year's Six Nations. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Surprise number one, is the number one: Gethin Jenkins has been held in reserve with table-topping Scarlets loosehead Rob Evans named to start.

Evans is a weaker scrummager than Jenkins. But at 23, he is the future of the position in Wales and provides more mobility and a powerful carrying option around the field.

Gatland’s decision in the front row must be heavily informed by Ireland’s absentees at the coalface. Rather than facing Mike Ross at the set-piece and Cian Healy in the loose, Evans is likely to pack down opposite Nathan White – an able and experienced operator, but well behind Ross in the natural pecking order.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the call will come during the second half, when Gatland will be able to send a fresh Jenkins on in attempt to tilt or tighten the flow of the game Wales’ way. Ken Owens and Tomas Francis will follow the Lion from the bench to make for a completely fresh front row. Even with quality back-up available, Schmidt might just not be quite as keen to call Jack McGrath or captain Rory Best ashore.

Mike McCarthy, CJ Stander and Stuart McCloskey Mike McCarthy, CJ Stander and Stuart McCloskey on their way to training today. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The surprise call in the back row makes for the most impressive section of the Wales line-up. Justin Tipuric has long been recognised a natural number seven of outstanding quality, but his prominence on the international scene has been stunted by his captain, Sam Warburton. For this weekend, Gatland has shelved the chop-specialist Dan Lydiate and moved Warburton to the blindside to allow Tipuric in to impose his will on Irish breakdowns.

The Ospreys openside was nothing short of brilliant in Wales’ pre-World Cup win in Dublin and he will hope to have a similar effect this time around at the Aviva. If Joe Schmidt had been leaning away from giving a debut to CJ Stander and towards Rhys Ruddock, then his mind might just have been made up by Wales’ team news.

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Schmidt loves nothing more than assurance from a player, and in Ruddock he’ll have a flanker he knows inside out and who has been fine-tooth-combing Schmidt breakdown practices for years. Stander promises destruction, chaos and an x-factor that may not tally up against the breakdown specialists in opposition for Schmidt.

Jamie Heaslip Out in front: Jamie Heaslip at Ireland training today. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

By this stage, Schmidt has probably shelved any remaining uncertainty over what his selection will look like. Luke Fitzgerald was likely to start on the wing despite being behind Dave Kearney at the World Cup. With the Lion suffering another unlucky turn in training last week however, there is room for Schmidt to insert a spark in the back-line – from Simon Zebo, Keith Earls or both.

The form of Jared Payne as Ulster fullback has led many to call for his inclusion in the same position for Ireland. However with a shortage of experienced heads available to match up opposite the Lions pairing of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, Rob Kearney’s ability to counter-act the aerial threat of Dan Biggar and the presence of Payne’s old pal Jerome Garces, it would be a shock to see a Leinster man who has done very little wrong this season dropped from Schmidt’s XV.

Robbie Henshaw and Paddy Jackson Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

From the back three, to back row and lock, there are places up for grabs all over the Ireland starting line-up due to a mix of retirement, injury and lack of form. Gatland clearly enjoys laying his cards on the table early in the week while Schmidt keeps them close to his chest.

It’s a show of bravado of sorts that makes it impossible for his opposite number to appear like he is doing anything but reacting. Schmidt will have to pack a surprise or two of his own to underline Ireland’s intent and address the shortcomings in the World Cup.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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