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six nations If Ireland are going to be good enough to put it up to France and England, we have to beat Wales well

Welsh rugby is in a bad way but their stars always shine in lions years

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Tadhg Beirne gets the plaudits Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Tadhg Beirne gets the plaudits Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Tadhg Beirne gets the plaudits Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The first game of the Six Nations sets the tone hugely for what is to follow.

And boy does that ring loudly for the meeting of Wales and Ireland in Cardiff this afternoon.

Whoever wins can start to dream of doing something special in 2021, the loser will be left to pick up an awful lot of broken pieces.

Irish coach Andy Farrell has made two big selection calls for this one - and he has come at them from two different angles.

In the pack, Tadhg Beirne has got the nod ahead of Iain Henderson to partner James Ryan in the second row.

And that's only right as Beirne has been in outstanding form of late for Munster while Henderson, unfortunately for him, has missed Ulster matches through injury.

The guy doing it on the pitch has got the call.

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James Lowe attempts to fend Leigh Halfpenny of Wales during the Autumn Nations Cup in November. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

James Lowe attempts to fend Leigh Halfpenny of Wales during the Autumn Nations Cup in November. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

James Lowe attempts to fend Leigh Halfpenny of Wales during the Autumn Nations Cup in November. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

But when it came to selecting his wingers, Farrell has gone with James Lowe, the flying Leinsterman who has also been out injured recently.

Jordan Larmour has played for Leinster in recent games, but he hasn't got the selection and starts on the bench.

Perhaps the two different thoughts came down to the fact that, as a forward, you need a game or two to get up to full match fitness.

A winger might only touch the ball three times in a game. Mind you, you can win Man of the Match with those three touches!

Farrell picked Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in the centre, leaving out Bundee Aki.

It was a hard choice, picking two of three very good players, but also knowing that the one to miss out would drop from the match-day group completely.

The rest of the team pretty much took care of itself with Tadhg Furlong being eased back into international action after almost a year out of the game through the Covid stoppage and injury.

You can expect the big prop to get the last 20 or 25 minutes today. It'll be the same against France next week and then there's a two-week break before we play Italy.

By then Furlong could be back on the team and a key man in what Ireland might do this year.

Can I just digress a moment to welcome the fact that both Ryan Baird and Gavin Coombes were part of the Irish squad in the build-up to this match.

Neither of these young forwards made the match-day group, but it was good to see both of them getting the opportunity to learn about life with Ireland as the team prepares for Test rugby.

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Tadhg Furlong is likely to be sprung from the bench. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Tadhg Furlong is likely to be sprung from the bench. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Tadhg Furlong is likely to be sprung from the bench. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Those two are going to be big players for Ireland in the future.

In fact Baird might have been capped last Autumn but for an untimely injury.

I wouldn't be putting them in against France next Sunday. It will be too physical a scrap for them.

But that Italy game looms as a place where Baird and Coombes might get a chance to show what they can do. And believe me, these young lads can do a lot.

How will we win this game? Through good set-piece work for a start.

Our line-out will surely be better for the presence of Paul O'Connell on the coaching ticket and we need good kicking from Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and full-back Hugo Keenan to keep the Welsh pegged back in their own half.

Then we have the backs to score the tries in Keith Earls, Ringrose and Lowe.

I think too that dogfight between Munster and Leinster in the Pro 14 a few weeks ago will stand to Ireland's players today.

Most of our chosen XV for today were in action in that game and it was as close to an international game as you can get, without actually playing in an Irish shirt. Our boys should be well primed.

By contrast, Welsh rugby is in a bad place. At provincial level, Ireland's teams beat up Wales' representatives regularly.

The national team has won only three matches since the 2019 World Cup, two against Italy and one against Georgia, and they are there for the taking today.

Their bench contains lads that only a real rugby anorak would be familiar with - while Ireland have Larmour, Furlong, Henderson and Dave Kilcoyne to call on, proven international players.

Wales' best winger, Josh Adams who was the top try scorer at the last World Cup, is banned for breaking Covid protocols.

While their pack leader, the mighty Alun Wyn Jones is back, the big second row has to be short of match fitness after nine weeks out through injury.

And seeing Welsh coach Wayne Pivac reassembling their fine back-row of a few years ago now, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau, doesn't suggest there is a whole heap of pack talent coming up from the Valleys.

Wales are there for the taking today.

And if Ireland are going to be good enough to put it up to France and England in Dublin later in this competition, we have to win this match.

In fact I'd go a bit further and say we have to win it well.

One thing gnaws away at my brain though. Wales always have good results in a Lions year.

And with their old boss, Warren Gatland, again coaching the Lions this summer in South Africa, the Welsh lads know that a big showing today against Irish opponents would do a lot for their selection hopes.

For an Irish, English or Scottish player, there is no higher rugby honour than playing for your country.

The Welsh put being a Lion on a higher pedestal than performing for their country.

So be warned. The eight or nine Irish boys who would have real ambitions of getting the Gatland nod to go to South Africa, and the couple of others who want to come from nowhere to earn Lions selection, you have to get the better of a very motivated direct opponent this afternoon.

Wales v Ireland, Six Nations, today, 3.0pm, Live on Virgin and BBC1

Results and fixtures...

Yesterday: Italy 10 France 50; England 6 Scotland 11.

Today: Wales v Ireland, Cardiff 3.0.

Sat Feb 13: England v Italy, 2.15;

Scotland v Wales, 4.45.

Sun Feb 14: Ireland v France, 3.0.

Sat Feb 27: Italy v Ireland, 2:15;

Wales v England, 4:45.

Sun Feb 28: France v Scotland, 3.0.

Sat Mar 13: Italy v Wales, 2.15;

England v France 4.45.

Sun Mar 14: Scotland v Ireland, 3.0.

Sat Mar 20: Scotland v Italy, 2.15; Ireland v England, 4.45; France v Wales, 8.0.

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