Six Nations preview: Ireland vs. Wales - Injuries ravage hosts

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Ireland vs. Wales

Sunday, kick-off 15:00

Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Ireland and Wales both kick off their Six Nations campaigns this weekend with depleted squads but a desire to finish the championship with more than just bragging rights. Injuries have hit Joe Schmidt's hosts hard but they could still kick off the post-Paul O'Connell era by becoming the first side to win three tournaments in a row outright. Wales, on the other hand, are targeting their own unique hattrick as they bid to follow up their 2008 and 2012 Grand Slams with a third straight post-Rugby World Cup whitewash. It promises to be an enthralling encounter in Dublin.

Team news

As if losing former captain and talisman O'Connell wasn't enough, Ireland will start Sunday's game without nine frontline players, six of whom are forwards. And with back-rowers Peter O'Mahony, Chris Henry and Sean O'Brien all on the treatment table, Schmidt has handed a debut to CJ Stander and recalled Tommy O'Donnell. Rory Best captains the side for the first time, while Simon Zebo starts at fullback.

Wales remain without long-term absentees Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Scott Williams, while Liam Williams has not been rushed back into action. However, Jonathan Davies has made a welcome return to the midfield, while Gareth Anscombe slots in at fullback. Tom James will make his first Wales appearance in more than five years in an exciting lineup that also includes Rob Evans at prop and Justin Tipuric at openside.

Ireland: Zebo, Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Earls, Sexton, Murray, McGrath, Best (captain), White, Toner, McCarthy, Stander, O'Donnell, Heaslip.

Replacements: Cronin, Cronin, Furlong, Ryan, Ruddock, Marmion, Madigan, Kearney.

Wales: Anscombe, North, J Davies, Roberts, James, Biggar, G Davies; Evans, Baldwin, Lee, Charteris, AW Jones, Warburton, Tipuric, Faletau.

Replacements: Owens, Jenkins, Francis, B Davies, Lydiate, Williams, Priestland, Cuthbert.

Key head-to-head

CJ Stander is set to make his Ireland debut at the Aviva, and the South Africa-born Munster flanker should be in for a busy afternoon. Wales coach Gatland has picked an explosive back-row with captain Sam Warburton shifting to the blindside to accommodate Justin Tipuric. The pair famously played together as Wales dismantled England in Cardiff in March 2013, but the combination also troubled Ireland as Gatland's side almost pulled off a remarkable comeback six weeks earlier. They will hope to carry on where they left off.

Key stats

* Ireland have not lost a home Six Nations match since Joe Schmidt became coach in April 2013. However, one of their three home defeats in all competitions was inflicted by Wales last August.

* The hosts have lost just one of their opening Six Nations matches since 2004. Their visitors on Sunday were the victors four years ago and went on to claim a Grand Slam.

* Warren Gatland will take charge of his 85th Test match as Wales head coach on Sunday, putting him third on the all-time list behind New Zealand's Graham Henry (103 Tests) and France's Bernard Laporte (98).

* Form guide: Ireland -- WWWWL Wales - WWWLL


Ireland may be limping into this encounter somewhat, but they have still been installed as slight favourites by Unibet, who price the defending champions at 77/110 to win. The same firm is offering Wales at 21/20, highlighting how close this contest could be.

Fantasy players to watch

Dan Biggar is a must for any Six Nations fantasy manager. A dead-eyed kicker, the Wales No.10 has developed into one of the finest fly-halves in world rugby. Robbie Henshaw was unstoppable last season, and is key to Ireland's attacking game plan.


Irish rugby could do with a boost. Injuries have mounted up, while their domestic regions have struggled. Do not expect Wales to give them much sympathy, though. They look stronger in every department, and should end a tough encounter with their Grand Slam dream intact.