DUBLIN (AP) Wales has back three of its Lions.
Ireland has lost three of its Lions.
Which is why Ireland will take a measure of fear into the Six Nations match with Wales on Saturday at Lansdowne Road.
The Welsh, unable to afford another defeat after falling to England 12-6 last time out, stiffened their backline this week by welcoming back fullback Leigh Halfpenny, flyhalf Dan Biggar, and wing Liam Williams.
Halfpenny’s poise and goalkicking were missed by Wales at Twickenham. Biggar hasn’t played in five weeks but his knowhow has made it easier for coach Warren Gatland to plug him straight in.
On the other hand, the Irish have been trying to find the bright side of going on without prop Tadhg Furlong, lock Iain Henderson, and center Robbie Henshaw.
Henshaw was a certain loss after needing a second operation on his right shoulder in eight months after damaging it scoring a second try against Italy two weeks ago. But hopes were held out for as long as possible for Furlong and Henderson, both of whom are dealing with hamstring issues.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt says they will be ready for the next test, but not this one, and it’s a triple blow for the championship leader.
”We’re short on experience, and we’re up against a team welcoming back three Lions while we see three disappear,” Schmidt says. ”That’s not ideal but if you want to learn, what better environment than what will be a really white-hot atmosphere on Saturday.”
Prop Andrew Porter and lock James Ryan, who have nine caps between them, will cement the tighthead side of Ireland’s scrum. Out back, Chris Farrell receives his third test cap in Henshaw’s place.
”You don’t suddenly replace world-class players,” Schmidt says.
”There are always going to be scenarios that come up that you’d like to think you’d be prepared for, but you don’t know how you’re going to cope.
”So for a player who hasn’t been there before, yes, it’s a bit more pressure. The unknown is always a fear for pretty much any human being, and there is a little bit about the unknown going into this weekend.”
At risk is not only Ireland’s unbeaten Six Nations run, but also a terrific home record. Ireland has lost only once at home in two years, and hasn’t lost at home in the championship in five years.
But Wales has no fear of the Irish in Dublin, where they have a superior record than the hosts. Wales has not lost to the Irish in their last three matchups. Wales handed the eventual 2015 champion its only defeat, opened 2016 with a draw in Dublin, and won again in Cardiff last year.
Wales could even be said to have better momentum after blowing a win at Twickenham, where the Welsh began as if they were going to be crushed but eventually held the more fancied English and finished stronger.
Asked if Ireland was the strongest team in the championship, Gatland gave an emphatic, ”No.”
”England are a tough outfit. Ireland ground out a win against France,” he says. ”You’ve got to keep your discipline against Ireland. We’ve got to make sure we don’t give them an opportunity to kick to the sidelines and secure their driving lineout. They play through lots of phases.”
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Dan Leavy, Peter O’Mahony, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Quinn Roux, Jack Conan, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Fergus McFadden.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, Aaron Shingler, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Cory Hill, Samson Lee, Ken Owens, Rob Evans. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe, George North.