Jack Conan pictured on Tuesday during Ireland Rugby Squad Training, IRFU High Performance Centre, Sport Ireland Campus, Blanchardstown, Dublin. [Inpho/Dan Sheridan]

Next up Wales in title defense

After impressive wins over France and Italy, Ireland are now odds-on favorites to become the first country to win back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slams, even though they still have three potentially tough games to play -- against Wales tomorrow at the Aviva Stadium, England (away on March 9) and Scotland (home on March 16). The last country to win the Grand Slam in consecutive years was France in 1997 and 1998, but back then the competition was called the Five Nations as Italy didn’t join until 2000. 

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Beating France in Marseille was a huge boost for the Irish team’s confidence. The following week, head coach Andy Farrell was able to make six changes for the visit of Italy, who failed to register a score of any type at the Aviva in reply to six tries from the Irish. There was much fuss made when Farrell announced that he was making 34-year-old Peter O’Mahony Irish captain. O’Mahony led the team against France, but after picking up a slight calf injury he was rested for the Italy game with Caelan Doris captaining the team for the first time. There is so much talent in this Irish squad right now that any of the 15 players who will start against Wales on Saturday could easily take over as captain. 

O’Mahony is back and as is Bundee Aki in the center and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park. Life goes on after the retirement of Johnny Sexton and Jack Crowley is proving to be an able replacement at Number 10, but his deputy Harry Byrne is probably a better kicker. 

Wales narrowly lost both of their opening games; by a point to Scotland and by two points to England and the Dragons are clearly in rebuild mode. While Wales won a friendly in Dublin in 2019, their last Six Nations win at the Aviva was in 2015. I have never seen such a talented Irish squad; we have a hooker in Dan Sheehan, who can score tries, we always had wingers but didn’t get the ball to them. Now James Lowe is a brilliant winger, so also adds a lot to the Irish set-up with his trusty left foot. The way the Irish are playing right now, 19 wins from 20 Test games, it’s easy to get carried away, but no doubt Welsh coach Warren Gatland is likely to say something a few days before the game to annoy the Irish. He does it every time. If the Irish can deal with a strong Scotland, who were a bit unlucky against France last time out, and then the big one is against England at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s weekend; if both keep winning it will be the Grand Slam decider, but if not, it might still be the championship decider.

Frawley in at No. 15

By P.J. Cunningingham

There was growing confidence in the Ireland camp last weekend that talismanic full-back Hugo Keenan would shake off a knee injury picked up against Italy to be fit against Wales. The Leinster star was forced off in the second half of the 36-0 win with what Head Coach Andy Farrell described at the time as “a bang in the knee.”

He didn't recover sufficiently, though, and Leinster No. 10 Ciaran Frawley will don the No15 jersey tomorrow.

Forwards coach Paul O’Connell said that Garry Ringrose was back in “good shape” having missed the matches against France and Italy, but he likewise is out.

However, three others not considered for the Italian match - skipper Peter O’Mahony, prop Tadhg Furlong and centre Bundee Aki - all trained during the week and will start.

Ireland: Ciarán Frawley; Calvin Nash, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Jack Crowley, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Joe McCarthy, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Oli Jager, James Ryan, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Stuart McCloskey.

Wales: Cameron Winnett; Josh Adams, George North, Nick Tompkins, Rio Dyer; Sam Costelow, Tomos Williams; Gareth Thomas, Elliot Dee, Keiron Assiratti; Dafydd Jenkins, Adam Beard; Alex Mann, Tommy Reffell, Aaron Wainwright.

Replacements: Ryan Elias, Corey Domachowski, Dillon Lewis, Will Rowlands, Mackenzie Martin, Kieran Hardy, Ioan Llyod, Mason Grady.