Ireland and Wales have much in common.
Their talismanic captains, Paul O’Connell and Sam Warburton, are back as starters.
Their coaches are Kiwis.
They tend more to win in each other’s backyards.
And they were the biggest contributors to the Lions victory in Australia last summer, when a grudge was born that has been waiting to be settled in this Six Nations clash on Saturday at Lansdowne Road.
Lions (and Wales) coach Warren Gatland drew a firestorm of criticism from Ireland when he dropped Irish figurehead Brian O’Driscoll for the deciding test of the series in Australia. Gatland was vindicated when O’Driscoll’s replacement, Welshman Jonathan Davies, starred in the series-clinching 41-16 victory.
O’Driscoll, naturally, took a while to get over it and joked he wouldn’t be sending Gatland a Christmas card. Gatland sent him one instead, and they both moved on.
Gatland was annoyed in having to reiterate the point at the start of the week, and O’Driscoll has said he doesn’t have “any ill-will toward Warren” and “the wound has healed”.
But privately, O’Driscoll must still feel he has a point to prove. He began his 14th and last Six Nations quietly by his standards in last week’s 28-6 win over Scotland.
The man of the match in last year’s win in Cardiff won’t confront Davies on Saturday – despite a club game last weekend, Davies needs more time to fully recover from a chest muscle injury – but O’Driscoll will face plenty of other Welsh Lions players with long memories, who weren’t impressed by the reaction to O’Driscoll being cut, and backed their coach.
It all makes for a little extra charge in the air as both teams look to move on with two wins from two games, and gathering momentum to the title.
Two-time defending champions Wales, after a scratchy 23-15 win over Italy on Saturday in Cardiff, have had an extra day’s preparation, while Ireland coach Joe Schmidt revealed his side’s defeat of Scotland was more bruising than it looked, as he ordered lighter than usual training.
O’Connell, who missed the Scotland game with a chest infection, said the respite will benefit them on Saturday.
“A lot of these fixtures are one-score games, so you need to score in the last quarter, in the closing stages if you want to get a result,” he said. “Hopefully with our fitness levels, and the quality of the bench, we can do that.”
Remarkably, the away team has won this match 21 times in the last 30 years, with one draw.
“We have not lost away in the Six Nations since March 2011,” Gatland noted. “There is no team we fear and it is good to go away and have the confidence that you can win.
“The bigger the match in recent years the more we have fronted up. Ireland are a tough team who have evolved under Joe Schmidt and we have to be very direct against them.”
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, David Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell (captain), Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Dan Tuohy, Tommy O’Donnell, Isaac Boss, Paddy Jackson, Fergus McFadden.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts, George North, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Andrew Coombs, Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Ken Owens, Paul James, Rhodri Jones, Jake Ball, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, James Hook, Liam Williams.