Preview: Wales v Ireland
Preview: Wales v IrelandSHARE
Wales will begin their Six Nations title defence against Ireland when two of Europe's most inconsistent teams meet at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
And they will be even more keen than usual to repeat last season's tournament opening 23-21 win over Ireland in Dublin after a third Six Nations Grand Slam in eight years was followed by a run of seven successive Test defeats.
Three of those reverses were against the Wallabies in Australia in June to a combined total losing margin of just 11 points, but alarm bells were sounded towards the end of 2012 following home losses to Argentina and Samoa.
But Wales captain Sam Warburton insisted his side were paying no attention to the prophets of doom.
"We weren't favourites for the title last year and I remember most people wrote us off for the opening game, but not only did we win that game, but the Grand Slam," Warburton said.
"As players we ignore what is being said from outside. We will take massive confidence from being the reigning champions. No-one can take that away from us, no matter what has happened since then," the openside flanker added.
"It was a great achievement and a lot of the boys from last year are here again and know what it takes."
While Wales's recent run of form has been disappointing, they have won their last three Tests against Ireland, including a 2011 World Cup quarter-final.
In the pack, Wales interim coach Rob Howley has re-united the 2009 British and Irish Lions front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones.
Jenkins will become the 23rd player to play in 100 Test matches, and only the fourth Welshman, when he wins his 95th Wales cap on Saturday to add to five appearances for the Lions.
Former Test scrum-half Howley — in charge now Warren Gatland has been seconded to the Lions for their tour of Australia later this year — has been able to select Wales's 'lucky mascot', Ian Evans.
The double Grand Slam-winning Ospreys lock, fit after an eight-week absence, has yet to taste defeat in his nine Six Nations matches to date.
Evans will be the senior partner in a second row also featuring Test debutant Andrew Coombs, who is bound to be targeted by Ireland's line-out experts.
While Coombs is eyeing up his first cap at the ripe old age of 28, one of Ireland's great players, Brian O'Driscoll, has admitted this could be his last Six Nations campaign.
The 34-year-old centre will win his 127th cap at the Millennium Stadium and extend his world record midfield partnership with Gordon D'Arcy to 49 Tests.
Just how well those two play outside fly-half Jonathan Sexton, seemingly destined for a big money move to a French club, could determine the outcome of the game.
O'Driscoll missed the end of year campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery, but is back to full fitness, although, having been Ireland captain for most of his Test career, he finds himself in the ranks after coach Declan Kidney decided to leave leadership duties with No 8 Jamie Heaslip, his skipper in November.
"There's every chance it's my last Six Nations but I haven't really allowed myself to start thinking about finishing," said O'Driscoll. "If you start thinking about it too early, you're one foot into retirement already.
"I'm contracted (with the Irish Rugby Football Union) until the summer and I'll see how my body feels."
O'Driscoll led Ireland to only their second Grand Slam in Cardiff in 2009, but Kidney isn't expecting an easy ride this weekend.
"The Six Nations has become unique in that there are no back doors, no bonus points and no 'home' and 'away' matches. Spot the easy match — there is no such thing," Kidney said.
Players to watch:
For Wales: You will watch the entire team – to see if they are up for this game. However, their key players are fullback Leigh Halfpenny, centres Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, as well as flyhalf Dan Biggar. Those are the guys that must get their free-flowing game back on track. Toby Faletau will provide the go-forward up front, Sam Warburton the leadership and Adam Jones the grunt in the set pieces.
For Ireland: You will start by having a close look at Brian O'Driscoll, who has admitted he is likely to be playing in his final Six Nations tournament. Rob Kearney will provide the impetus from the back and Jonathan Sexton is the general. Jamie Heaslip, as new captain, will have the weight of the leadership expectations on his shoulders, while hooker Rory Best will be the rock in the set pieces.
Head to head: They don't come much bigger, better and more entertaining that the midfield face-off between Jonathan Davies (Wales) and Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland). In fact the added spice is the midfield combinations of Jonathan Davies, and Jamie Roberts (Wales) against Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy (Ireland).
2012: Wales won 23-21, Dublin
2011: Wales won 22-10, Wellington (World Cup quarterfinal)
2011: Wales won 19-13, Cardiff
2010: Ireland won 27-12, Dublin
2009: Ireland won 17-15, Cardiff
2008: Wales won 16-12, Dublin
2007: Ireland won 19-9, Cardiff
2006: Ireland won 31-5, Dublin
2005: Wales won 32-20, Cardiff
2004: Ireland won 36-15, Dublin
Prediction: Neither team has been particularly impressive in the most recent past and on paper there is not much to choose between them either. The only separating factor is that the game is being played in Cardiff. Of course Ireland have a very realistic chance of an upset (not that it will be a major surprise), but we feel home ground advantage will give the Welsh the edge. Wales to sneak a win – by less than 10 points.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Andrew Coombs, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Craig Mitchell, 18 Paul James, 19 Olly Kohn, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Liam Williams, 22 Scott Williams, 23 James Hook.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (captain), 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ronan O'Gara, 23 Keith Earls.
Date: Saturday, February 2
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 13.30 (13.30 GMT)
Expected weather: A largely dry and fine day. The roof may well stay open for this one. High of 8°C and a low of 4°C
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Pascal Gauzere (France)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
AFP & rugby365