Ireland will kick-off their quest for a third straight Six Nations Championship with a match against a much fancied Wales side on Sunday.
Despite having won the last two titles – the most recent on points difference – a disappointing Rugby World Cup exit has clearly not been forgotten by the bookies, who have Joe Schmidt’s men as third favourites for the title, behind England and Warren Gatland’s dynamic side.
Of course injuries to a handful of key men such as Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry, plus the retirement from international duty of Paul O’Connell, has played a role in Ireland being viewed as somewhat outside bets for glory but surely they can’t be written off.
Should Ireland need any extra motivation following that heavy defeat they suffered against Argentina then exacting revenge over Wales for their 16-10 win at the Aviva Stadium back in August’s World Cup warm-up match is another fascinating subplot ahead of their 2016 campaign.
New blood comes in via CJ Stander but it remains a familiar side, despite Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney having also been ruled out of this opening game. Robbie Henshaw has recovered in time to start alongside Jared Payne while Andrew Trimble gets the nod ahead of Dave Kearney.
Wales meanwhile remain without full-back Leigh Halfpenny due to injury and with Liam Williams not yet 100 percent fit, Gatland has put his faith in Gareth Anscombe. Elsewhere in the backline there is a strong look to the centre and half-backs while Tom James is in on the wing.
Gatland has also made the decision to start Justin Tipuric alongside Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau and from recent form for Ospreys it was surely an easy decision, with Tipuric in excellent shape going into the Six Nations. The same can also be said of lock Alun-Wyn Jones.
It really is fascinatingly poised for this Sunday afternoon in Dublin as Ireland, under new captain Rory Best, are surely the nation under pressure as Wales enter with a siege mentality. If the visitors do get the win then all the pre-tournament talk would gather pace ahead of hosting Scotland and then France. For Ireland, a visit to Paris awaits before travelling to England in as tough a start as they could get.
Players to watch:
For Ireland: He has been outstanding for Munster since arriving from the Bulls in 2012 and on Sunday CJ Stander will take the next step in his career when he runs out for his adopted country. Such a brute with ball in hand, if the Welsh don’t stop him at source, he’ll keep coming at them throughout. Also keep an eye on Ulster wing Andrew Trimble as he looks to bounce back after his Rugby World Cup snub.
For Wales: What an opportunity for Tom James and Rob Evans this Sunday’s game is. The wing and loosehead prop come in ahead of Alex Cuthbert and Gethin Jenkins respectively as Warren Gatland shows no one is irreplaceable in his line-up. James has impressed for Cardiff Blues so far this season and can be devastating with ball in hand. If he and George North click, Wales have real running weapons out wide.
Head-to-head: How can we look anywhere but the battle of the tens? With the British and Irish Lions tour fast approaching are these two the front-runners for the fly-half shirt? At the moment Dan Biggar is out in front but Jonathan Sexton has so often raised his game in the green jersey. Kicking, running games and defence will be under the spotlight throughout in this exciting one-on-one tussle in Dublin.
2015: Wales won 16-10 in Dublin
2015: Wales won 23-16 in Cardiff
2014: Ireland won 26-3 in Dublin
2013: Ireland won 30-22 in Cardiff
2012: Wales won 23-21 in Dublin
2011: Wales won 22-10 in Wellington
2011: Wales won 19-13 in Cardiff
2010: Ireland won 27-12 in Dublin
2009: Ireland won 17-15 in Cardiff
Prediction: Do not underestimate how well Dan Biggar is playing. He could have a huge say in this fixture as we go for Wales by 6.
Ireland: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Nathan White, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jerry Cronin, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Dave Kearney
Wales: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton (c), 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Dan Lydiate, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Alex Cuthbert
Date: Sunday, February 7
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)