By David Williams
Andy Farrell says Ireland must make a statement of intent against Wales to demonstrate their Guinness Six Nations title credentials.
The Irish return to Cardiff on Sunday for the first time since a 25-7 defeat in 2019 saw Wales replace them as Grand Slam champions.
Head coach Farrell was unable to help his adopted country reclaim the crown during an inconsistent first year in the job, eventually finishing a prolonged tournament third behind England and France.
After twice comprehensively beating Wales in Dublin during 2020, Farrell wants Ireland to lay down a marker at the Principality Stadium to kickstart the quest for glory.
“We can talk about how well we’ve trained – I suppose every team does that – but it’s about performance now,” said Englishman Farrell.
“Starting off a competition well is key, getting the victory in the Six Nations is key. This is a competition that everyone wants to win at the start.
“The main thing for us is about the continuity of our performance, getting all of our bits right and making sure they all come together in the right format.
“Having a proper intent and showing our want to try and win this competition right from the get-go is key for us.”
Wales produced a limp Six Nations title defence last year, suffering four successive defeats following a first-round win over perennial wooden spoon winners Italy.
Wayne Pivac’s men were second best when defeated 24-14 at the Aviva Stadium in February, before losing 32-9 at the same venue in November during the Autumn Nations Cup.
Ireland’s main challenge for 2021 looks to be closing the gap to Eddie Jones’ England and an exciting young French side.
While unfancied Wales have already been written off in some quarters, Farrell is taking nothing for granted and fully focused on the job in hand.
“They are all big moments – this is the most important one because it’s the next game,” he said.
“It’s the start of a competition that we want to do really well in. Once this game is out of the way, the next one will be a big moment as well, France at home.
“Everyone is talking about that being the next step but this is the only game that we’re bothered about.”
Farrell has recalled Josh Van Der Flier as part of an enforced back-row reshuffle after a concussion symptom deprived him of the considerable talents of Caelan Doris.
The bookies only have Wales +4.
Also, the more I look at the pack, the more I’m convincing myself that it’s well-equipped to deal with Ireland’s lack of genuine physicality.
Maybe this game will be closer than I think. Maybe, just maybe, Wales can actually, you know…#WALvIRE pic.twitter.com/ypgLYHkp29
— Edward Jenkins (@edjenx) February 5, 2021
Van Der Flier’s selection at openside flanker means Peter O’Mahony switches to blindside, with CJ Stander moving into the number eight jersey vacated by Doris.
Van Der Flier, who will collect his 29th Test cap, started the first three games of the Farrell era early last year but played a peripheral part in the autumn campaign.
Farrell has backed the mild-mannered Leinster man to plug a sizeable gap.
“Just because he’s a quiet character, doesn’t mean he hasn’t got the intent or the physicality that everyone sees from someone who is flamboyant or boisterous on the field,” Farrell said.
“He gets the job done really well and we’re super excited to see Josh get his chance and show everyone what he’s about.
“In a lot of the big games that we’ve played over the last five years, he’s been an integral part of that.”
Wayne Pivac, in his second year as Wales head coach, has chosen a starting lineup with 784 caps in a throwback to the days of his predecessor Warren Gatland.
“The Six Nations is where we will be challenged,” said Pivac when asked if the need for a result meant he was not looking beyond the short-term. “We were not happy at where we were, but it is different now.”
“The autumn series results weren’t around a lack of effort but we went in with a different philosophy for that.
“On reflection we didn’t come out of lockdown well. We were behind the eight ball. We know that from the amount of testing we did.
“What we’ve done differently this time is we’ve focused more on getting our game in order rather than just getting the boys to a stage where they can compete over 80 minutes.
“Everybody’s rolled their sleeves up and done a good job.”
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Johnny Williams, Hallam Amos; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Will Rowlands, Josh Navidi, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Nick Tompkins.
Ireland: Keenan, Earls, Ringrose; Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Herring, Porter, Beirne, Ryan, O’Mahony, Van der Flier, Stander.
Replacements: Kelleher, Kilcoyne, Furlong, Henderson, Connors, Gibson Park, Burns, Larmour.