Six Nations Rugby | Team selection talking points: Wales v Ireland

Six Nations Rugby | Team selection talking points: Wales v Ireland

Last year, Ireland put in an assured display to cruise to a 29-7 win in Dublin but Wales’ record in Cardiff has been exceptional and with Gatland back at the helm it is set to be much closer this time around.

Two days before the much awaited Championship finally gets underway, both Gatland and Farrell have named their squads and there is plenty of intrigue at both line-ups.


Warren Gatland has named his first Wales squad since returning as head coach ahead of the Guinness Six Nations opener with Ireland on Saturday.

Gatland, who won the Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam on three occasions, has recalled some familiar faces from his previous tenure, but has blended in some youth with this experience.

His first game back in charge will be a big challenge, as Wales grapple with the prospect of taking on the world no.1 side Ireland in Cardiff.

And with his first squad announced since returning to Cardiff, there are plenty of names that really capture the eye.

Five Classics: Wales v Ireland

Return of a familiar face to the starting XV

Ken Owens was named as captain for the Championship, but there were question marks about whether Alun Wyn Jones, Gatland’s captain during the 2019 Grand Slam success and on the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour, would be in the starting XV.

Injury to Will Rowlands suggested Gatland would recall his most trusted lieutenant and the world record cap holder to his engine room to join Osprey’s teammate Adam Beard.

Jones has seen it all colors in Wales, from heartbreak to huge successes and with Gatland looking to quickly turn around Wales’ fortunes following a disappointing 2022, he is back in the starting XV.

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He has always been one to drive up standards, and with 155 Wales caps to his name, will be a big leader in the dressing room and on the pitch, alongside Owens and other former captains Justin Tipuric and Dan Biggar.

There is an awful lot of experience throughout the Wales squad, with Biggar and Jones joined by fellow centurion George North, while Taulupe Faletau is approaching the 100-cap mark himself this Championship.

They will be looking to lead the side to the right some wrongs after last year’s Championship, and while Owens is captain, Jones will have a major say in how they do that.

Some youthful touches bring a fresh look

Experience is always vital during Rugby’s Greatest Championship, but when results haven’t been going your way, it’s also important to freshen things up.

With Joe Hawkins at inside center and Rio Dyer on the left wing both set to make their Guinness Six Nations debuts, Gatland has done just that.

There is a lot of excitement about Hawkins, who earned his solitary Wales cap in Wayne Pivac’s final match in charge against Australia, with the 20-year-old expected to be a key member of the Wales squad for the next decade.

The Lowdown: Wales

Speaking about his new prospect at inside centre, Gatland said: “We’ve picked Joe at 12. He’s a lovely footballer with some great skills.

“I thought for his first cap he was outstanding, so we’ve given him another opportunity. There’s some real competition in the midfield at the moment, so I’m really excited about that.”

Warren Gatland

Dyer proved during the Autumn Nations Series that he too can be a key member of the Wales squad for years to come, scoring two tries in his three caps to date – including one against the All Blacks on his Test debut, and is a welcome addition to an otherwise hugely experienced back three.

Six-cap Jac Morgan is the other member of the starting XV with fewer than 10 caps, while there are three more named as replacements – Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell and Owen Williams.

Form players chosen

Morgan was a bright spark for Wales in the Autumn Nations Series and he has maintained that form for Ospreys since, scoring the match-winning try against Leicester Tigers to seal their place in the knockout stages in the European Champions Cup for the first time since 2010 .

He is one of eight Ospreys players in the starting XV, with a further four named on the bench, suggesting that first and foremost Gatland is going for players in form, as well as those he can trust.

The inclusion of those young faces support that claim, while the likes of Jenkins, Reffell and Cuthbert have been in excellent form too for their respective teams and can make a real impact from the bench.

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Gatland added: “There’s a mixture in the team of some experience, some younger players. We were conscious as well picking the bench. We think we’ve got a bench that can come on and have an impact.

“We’ve only had a couple of weeks together but I’m confident that the guys will go out and give a good account of themselves. They’re pretty excited about playing this first game at home.”

Having form players in that squad will be a key – and there are no players more in form for Wales than Morgan right now.


Ireland come into this clash as the team to beat after an historic Test series victory over New Zealand saw them to world number one and they will be hoping to end their Principality Stadium hoo-doo, having failed to win during the Championship in Cardiff since 2013 .

Andy Farrell is fully aware of that record and is preparing his team for a year like no other for Irish rugby, with expectations of success at an all-time high.

Farrell has named his side tasked with ending a decade of Irish hurt in the Cardiff cauldron and there have been some interesting selection decisions.

The Lowdown: Ireland

Sexton to lead side from the front

There were worries about whether captain and fly-half Johnny Sexton would be fit to start Ireland’s opener, but those have been squashed with Sexton picked to start.

The 37-year-old has been there and done that and ten years ago scored 15 of Ireland’s 30 points as they defeated Wales 30-22.

He has not played since suffering a facial injury against Connacht on New Year’s Day, but he has been training, thanks to the use of a facial mask.

The news he is fit and raring to go for Ireland is bigger than any other, with Sexton simply vital to everything they do.

A man capable of kicking goals from everywhere, playing his team around the park and putting his body on the line, as well as those all too familiar clutch moments make Sexton the man to lead the side from the front, much to the relief of Farrell and Ireland supporters.

An opportunity for players to step up

Sexton’s fitness is a major boost, but upon first inspection of the team, there are two glaring omissions that stand out immediately – Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong.

Henshaw was not called into the original squad as he continues to recover from a wrist injury, while Furlong, having recovered from an ankle injury is now struggling with a calf complaint.

Farrell revealed that he would not be far away from returning, but the game against Wales was a step too far.

Sexton only focused on Wales in a massive year for Ireland

He said: “He’s not quite ready.

“In fact, he’s progressing pretty well but he’s not quite there yet. He could possibly be there in the next few days or week.”

But injury to one opens a door for another and this is the case for Ireland in Cardiff, with two players who have spent much of their international careers as replacements or knocking on the door, given the chance to impress.

Stuart McCloskey is the man tasked with filling the sizeable hole that Henshaw leaves, after the Ulster center impressed during the Autumn Nations Series where he also deputised for Henshaw.

Despite being a prominent figure for the Belfast side for several years, he has just nine caps to his name.

Preferred to Bundee Aki, who is on the bench, McCloskey now has a serious opportunity, not only to add more caps to his name, but also to prove he can be trusted by Farrell.

Stuart McCloskey try against Japan

He added: “I thought he handled himself pretty well (in the autumn.)”

“He has been desperate enough to get the opportunities and do well, I think the good thing for us is that there’s more in him at this level and we’re excited to see that.”

In place of Furlong is Finlay Bealham, whose 27 caps have come almost exclusively from the bench.

He too has a real opportunity to prove to Farrell that he is capable of not just being a replacement, but that the No.3 jersey is one he can compete with Furlong for throughout the Championship and beyond.

He is a player that Farrell was particularly pleased to include in his starting XV, saying: “We think Finlay deserves it.

“He’s playing some outstanding rugby at this moment in time – the last game he played, he scored a hat-trick and he’s scrummaging very well, so he deserves a start.

“Coming back from the autumn, or any camp he’s been in with us, he [Bealham] has had that trust.

“He’s a massive personality within our squad, he’s very popular, but coming out of the autumn and how that translates, going back to Connacht and his performances since then has been top-drawer.”

A settled side – a help or a hindrance?

Barring those injuries to Henshaw and Furlong, this is the Ireland side everyone would have expected to see run out in the Guinness Six Nations opener.

To have a settled side is often something that is overlooked, and in Ireland’s case here, this side have been building together for a number of years under Farrell.

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But Ireland fans will be worried that they have been in this position before – in the 2019 Championship, and the settled side proved to actually be a side slightly devoid of ideas.

The lack of genuinely new faces this time around may be a slight worry for some, but with Mack Hansen still relatively fresh on the scene and McCloskey and Bealham coming in to start, there are still some fresh faces among the starters.

Only time will tell if this Ireland side can get past those previous demons, or if it is a painful case of déjà-vu for Farrell and co.

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