Wayne Pivac’s response to the pressure building around him ahead of the Six Nations was to pick Wales’ most capped ever side, knowing it is high time they delivered.
The XV who will face Ireland on Sunday has 874 caps between them. With Ken Owens (77 caps) returning and as Dan Lydiate (64) is starting for the first time since 2018, Wales have re-enforced their spine.
Fit again Alun Wyn Jones has 143 caps, George North and Leigh Halfpenny are in the 90s and Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau have 80-odd Tests each, so Pivac could hardly ask for more security.
Wayne Pivac has picked Wales’ most capped ever side for their Six Nations opener vs Ireland
But will those players give it to him?
He has been here before, when selecting a team with 859 caps for the France game last Six Nations, and Wales lost at home to begin their poor run.
Pivac’s honeymoon period has long since passed and he knows it. His messages ahead of this tournament have all been about how vital it is Wales win, nothing else, having lost seven of 10 last year.
Tomorrow, with the old guard, would be a good time to start.
Fit again second row Alun Wyn Jones has 143 caps and will captain the side on Sunday
George North, who has over 90 caps for his country, will start for Wales at centre
‘We don’t need to be told,’ he said yesterday having picked North in the centre – as Sportsmail reported – revealing that Jonathan Davies will be out with an ankle injury for Ireland and Scotland.
‘We know the pressure’s building in terms of expectations and results.
‘But no-one puts more expectation on results than the group themselves and that’s what people need to understand.
WALES VS IRELAND
WALES: Halfpenny; Rees-Zammit, North, J Williams, Amos; Biggar, T Williams; W Jones, Owens, Francis, Beard, AW Jones, Lydiate, Tipuric, Faletau.
Bench: Bench: Dee, R Jones, Brown, Rowlands, Navidi, G Davies, Sheedy, Tompkins.
IRELAND: Keenan; Earls, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Herring, Porter, Beirne, Ryan, O’Mahony, van der Flier, Stander.
Bench: Kelleher, Kilcoyne, Furlong, Henderson, Connors, Gibson-Park, Burns, Larmour
‘The challenges are when you’re in situations where you haven’t done as well as you would have liked and hopefully this group is going to rise to that challenge.’
Pivac was not naïve enough to think coaching Wales would be all sunshine and rainbows.
‘It’s still everything I was expecting,’ he added.
‘I’m representing a group of people and a country that is very, very proud of their national team, very passionate and love the game as we all do.
‘I wouldn’t want it any other way to be quite honest. We know exactly where we’re at.’
Where they are at is hard to tell. After a poor 2020 Wales feel they are calmer, fitter, more focused on results.
The Irish – mud-slinging pundits not within Andy Farrell’s camp – reckon they are ‘rubbish’ and one predicated an ‘annihilation’ tomorrow. As Ireland have not won in Cardiff in the Six Nations since 2013 that is unlikely.
On those incendiary comments Pivac said, with a grin: ‘It just adds some spice to it, doesn’t it? We’ll have a chat about that after full-time.’
Lydiate was another to be blitzed from over the Irish Sea. Former flanker Stephen Ferris said his ‘best years are behind him’ and he would be ‘licking his lips’ playing the 33-year-old.
Dan Lydiate will play his first Wales match since 2018 in their Six Nations game with Ireland
Lydiate himself replied: ‘I obviously think I’m a better player now. If I was playing bad rugby, I wouldn’t have been selected. I’ve got to do my speaking on the field.’
So it was up to Dan Biggar, never one to leave a team-mate floundering, to leap to Lydiate’s defence.
‘His form has been excellent,’ said the fly-half who starts with Tomos Williams inside.
‘He is probably the form player in Wales at the four regions over the last six months.
‘It’s great to have him back. As experienced players we’ve seen it all before anyway. It’s not really going to affect us on Sunday.’
If you are Welsh you hope it does. Criticism and adversity has often fired a rocket up Wales.
With Josh Adams’ ‘gender reveal party’ attendance meaning he is banned after breaking Covid rules, with Liam Williams suspended after a red card on club duty, and with Wales’ woeful form not many are giving them a hope.
But Ireland have hardly hit their straps under Farrell either. They have Josh van der Flier at flanker, James Lowe on the wing and Tadhg Beirne at lock with Tadhg Furlong on the bench after nearly a year out injured.
Wales wing Josh Adams is pictured with a friend at the ‘gender reveal party’ of his child
Ireland too will rely on golden oldies, hoping Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray steer them to a rare Cardiff win. If they do not it is Farrell staring down the barrel.
‘We could talk about how well we’ve trained and every team does that, but it’s about performance now isn’t it?’ the Irish boss said summing up the predicament for both coaches.
‘Within the two camps, we know the truth, that it is going to be a war of attrition. Getting a victory in the Six Nations is key.’
Pivac concluded: ‘Judge this team after Sunday.’
He and Farrell know the world will come full time.