Saturday 15 December 2018

Ireland-Wales combined XV: Little to separate Six Nations rivals ahead of pivotal encounter

A nine-six split in Ireland's favour

Cormac Byrne

Warren Gatland would love nothing more than to torpedo Ireland's Grand Slam ambitions at the Aviva Stadium this weekend and the form of the Welsh side suggests they are capable of doing it.

Joe Schmidt has never lost a Six Nations game at the Dublin 4 venue and the odds suggest that he won't relinquish that record this weekend.

Ireland have beaten Wales twice, lost three times and drawn once during the Kiwi's tenure and can level up the score this weekend.

Choosing only from players available for selection this weekend, we have chosen our Ireland-Wales combined XV:

15. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

A choice between two Mr Dependables. Rob Kearney has the edge in dealing with aerial bombs but Halfpenny's goal-kicking is of the highest standard. The fact that Halfpenny crossed the whitewash twice in the rout of the Scots shades it for him.

14. Keith Earls (Ireland)

By his own admission Keith Earls has had an epiphany moment in his career in terms of dealing with nerves and his preparation. One of the first names on Joe Schmidt's teamsheet.

13. Scott Williams (Wales)

Jonathan Davies and Robbie Henshaw would be ahead of Williams, Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose in this race. The Welsh centre is teak tough and his ball skills are underrated. If Ringrose was match-fit then this decision could have gone another way.

12. Bundee Aki (Ireland)

Hadleigh Parkes and the Connacht star have both made big impressions on the international stage since debuting for their adopted countries. Aki has brought a new dimension to the Irish attack and his ferocity in defence will be key this weekend.

11. Steff Evans (Wales)

Jacob Stockdale has six tries in six Irish appearances but defensive lapses for Ulster over the festive period and Teddy Thomas' try in Paris are a cause for concern. Evans is quite simply a brilliant finisher and adept at sniffing out an opportunity. The Scarlets winger will take stopping.

10. Johnny Sexton (Ireland)

Dan Biggar won't return from injury in time for Saturday's game but even if he did, he wouldn't usurp Sexton in this contest. His drop goal in Paris showed his mettle and skill in one glorious moment.

9. Conor Murray (Ireland)

Gareth Davies will keep the Irish back row on their toes and is in terrific form but Murray is the best scrumhalf in world rugby at the moment. His tactical awareness is second to none.

8. CJ Stander (Ireland)

Both Stander and Ross Moriarty are big ball carriers but the Munster number 8 has an unreal engine. It would be nice to see him gain more yardage from his carries.

7. Josh Navidi (Wales)

Navidi has been a revelation at 7 for Wales and keeping Justin Tipuric out of the Welsh side is no mean feat. He was strong at the breakdown against Scotland and England. Dan Leavy played brilliantly when introduced in Paris but showed some vulnerability in defence against Italy.

6. Peter O'Mahony (Ireland)

O'Mahony is showing real leadership at lineout time and is making more of an impact in the loose. Aaron Shingler has been immense for Wales but not good enough to oust the Ireland blindside.

5. Alun Wyn-Jones (Wales)

James Ryan may well have filled this position had he been available to back up his French performance against the Azzurri. Wyn-Jones's experience, will and skill make him a worthy selection.

4. Iain Henderson (Ireland)

The Ulster lock has been carrying brilliantly since his return from the Lions tour. The competition is the Irish second row is for the right to partner Henderson.

3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)

I have a huge amount of time for Samson Lee and he's shown some nice touches in possession over the first two weekends of the tournament but it could only be the Wexford native.

2. Ken Owens (Wales)

The Irish captain Rory Best is a notable omission but Owens always delivers for Warren Gatland and Wales. Not an easy choice.

1. Cian Healy (Ireland)

A testament to the depth in the Irish squad that the loosehead slot was a toin-coss between Healy and Jack McGrath. Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt have the enviable task of trying to choose between them.

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