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Six Nations: Wales a big obstacle as Ireland get set for tough race

With away games against France and England to follow for Ireland, Sunday's Six Nations opener with Wales takes on even greater importance for Joe Schmidt's defending champions. Rugby Correspondent Jonathan Bradley analyses the team former Ireland coach Warren Gatland will bring to the Aviva.

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Wales are deprived of the talents of full-back Leigh Halfpenny, the Lions' man of the series in 2013, with the Toulon star still recovering from the knee injury that saw him miss out on the World Cup at the 11th hour.

Liam Williams, the talented Scarlet who would have worn the 15 jersey, is also absent having only returned for his region last week. Gareth Anscombe instead gets the start with Ireland sure to test the son of former Ulster coach Mark underneath the high ball.

Tom James has been in fine form for Cardiff since returning to Arms Park from Exeter this season and the once-temperamental wing will make a return to the Test stage for the first time since 2010.

Northampton superstar George North is on the opposite wing having not been at his rampaging best in recent times. Andrew Trimble, so strong in the air and suited to a physical game, is expected to start for Ireland with either Keith Earls or Simon Zebo also getting the nod. With Jared Payne and Rob Kearney to choose between, Schmidt is spoilt for choice at full-back.

Edge: Ireland


Whether or not we see 'Warren-ball' in action at the Aviva, the battle of the centres will surely be physical. With the excellent Jonathan Davies back from the injury that cruelly cost him his place at the World Cup, Wales have gone with the tried and tested.

The Clermont man is again paired with Jamie Roberts in the midfield, a duo that Gatland has seen succeed throughout recent championships and also in the final Test of the Lions win in Australia.

The guile of Davies and power of Roberts are capable of posing difficulties for the game's very best when on form.

Ireland's midfield has been much debated, whether or not Stuart McCloskey should be handed a debut alongside Robbie Henshaw the main topic, and those in the 12 and 13 jerseys - set to be Henshaw and Jared Payne - know they need to be on top of their game.

Edge: Wales


paddy Jackson, the form No.10 in Ireland, will be sitting on Ulster's bench this evening but 30-year-old Jonathan Sexton remains one of, if not the, best out-halves in the Northern Hemisphere.

His performance in this fixture two years ago was supreme and it is he and Conor Murray that will need to make Ireland tick. Dan Biggar's World Cup continued his claim as a genuine rival to Sexton's crown, although he has been slightly off colour since, with his kicking game equally precise.

Scrum-half is where things got particularly interesting for Wales with World Cup incumbent Gareth Davies selected at nine ahead of Aled Davies despite Sunday's substitute having got the nod more often this year at Scarlets.

Edge: Ireland


The loose-forwards are a real area of strength for the Welsh side. Australia had such success with the twin-openside strategy they deployed at the World Cup with David Pocock and Michael Hooper, and Warren Gatland will do the same on Sunday.

Justin Tipuric has been selected alongside captain Sam Warburton. With Taulupe Faletau a big ball carrier at No.8, they have the luxury of keeping Dan Lydiate on the bench. Sean O'Brien has been a fitness doubt this week but CJ Stander has boosted the options available to Schmidt.

Edge: Wales


It is up front where Ireland's injury problems have taken their toll. Props Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Martin Moore are all absent meaning Rory Best's first game as permanent skipper will see him expected to pack down in between Jack McGrath and Nathan White.

With no Iain Henderson, or the departed Paul O'Connell, Ireland look light in the row as well. Wales tight-head Samson Lee has regained his match sharpness and, with Scott Baldwin having nailed down the hooker spot, the only debate here was the loosehead.

With Gatland cheekily suggesting that referee Jerome Garces has played a part in the decision, young Rob Evans gets the nod over vastly-experienced Gethin Jenkins.

Alun Wyn Jones will again be a catalyst, talisman and driving force in the engine room with the 30-year-old sure to once again be one of the tournament's top performers, while Luke Charteris will do his best to negate the threat of Ireland's rolling maul.

Edge: Wales

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