CHRIS KIRWAN SAYS: Irish clash is not the time to experiment
9:00am Thursday 24th January 2013 in Sport
TEN months ago Wales, basking in the glory of a Grand Slam, was lauding a world class blindside flanker.
Dan Lydiate had been named as Six Nations player of the tournament and was rightly earning the plaudits after four sterling performances in defence.
The one game that he didn’t play in because of injury saw Ryan Jones produce a marvellous display as his deputy, getting through a mountain of work against Ireland in Dublin.
Jones and Lydiate are two men who thrive on being tasked with providing the grunt and doing the graft.
They are the bedrock of the back row, destructive, uncompromising and with an appetite for the confrontation of the gain line.
And their exploits in last year’s Six Nations should be fresh in the mind of the Wales coaching staff as they prepare for the start of the 2013 tournament.
Interim boss Rob Howley and his coaches will have been pencilling in their team to face Ireland in their opener this week.
There are plenty of decisions to be made and the pieces should fall into place once the key call is made regarding the back row triumvirate.
The coaches have admitted they are mulling over the possibility of fielding both skipper Sam Warburton and fellow openside Justin Tipuric along with Toby Faletau.
Such a move was resisted in the autumn – barring 31 minutes because of injuries against New Zealand and brief spells at the end of the losses to Samoa and Australia – but they are feeling brave.
Their hand has been forced by the form of Tipuric, who has become almost as important to the Ospreys as talisman tighthead Adam Jones.
Some say that plumping for both is worth a try in the absence of the injured Lydiate given that the Wales coaches are loath to drop captain Sam, who has a much tougher time of it at regional level given Cardiff Blues’ frequent struggles up front.
The positives of such a move are obvious – there will be more creativity for a Wales side that has struggled to crack open defences and the pair will make the breakdown a nightmare for the Irish.
Yet the negatives are just as clear and are so stark that they should convince Howley to shelve plans to combine his opensides, for now at least.
Think back to the autumn and the deflating defeats to Argentina and Samoa.
The list of things that went wrong with Wales’ game was lengthy, yet the most pressing was the lack of ball carriers.
At times it was a one-man show up front with Faletau the only one to put his hand up and do the hard yards. Selecting Tipuric and Warburton would mean the Dragons number eight shoulders even more of the burden.
It’s one thing plotting a high-octane, expansive game but it’s another being able to enforce that plan.
The thinking is that Wales would be able to play with freedom and pace with a pair of sevens in their side… but what if Ireland don’t let them?
They won’t come to Cardiff looking to throw the ball around like the Barbarians. They won’t channel the spirit of Simon Geoghegan and go on weaving flowing runs from anywhere.
They want an arm wrestle and sense Welsh weakness in the tight five. They will be dogged, they will use the back row power of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and the mightily impressive Chris Henry and they will be canny.
And the opposition and the disruption to their second row should lead Wales to make what may seem a conservative choice, but the correct one.
The openside debate is one that is not going to go away for years and there will come a time when it’s worth trying both, possibly when locks Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris are fit.
But Ireland in the Six Nations opener is not the time for that experiment.
SOME members of the media seem to be of the belief that Andrew Coombs is merely in the Wales squad to hold tackle bags.
Few have the Newport Gwent Dragons lock/back row forward in their matchday 23 that will go up against Ireland, nor do many Wales fans for that matter.
And it’s true that the 28-year-old’s hopes of featuring in the opener have been dented by the likely return to fitness of his roomie at Wales’ Vale of Glamorgan headquarters, Ryan Jones.
But I believe the reasons why I wouldn’t select both Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric give Coombs a chance of being involved.
Much has been made of the Dragons lock’s abrasive nature and ability to get under his opponent’s skin yet one of his biggest assets, courtesy of his history in the back row, is his willingness to carry ball.
The combination of Coombs’ appetite for the dirty work and his versatility means a first cap remains a possibility in his third season as a professional, and few would deserve it more.
There were some raised eyebrows when his name appeared on the squad list for the Six Nations.
I’m hoping for the same again when the team to face Ireland is named next Thursday.