Howley produces a surprise or two
I DON'T think any pundit or Welsh fan would have predicted the starting XV Rob Howley announced at yesterday's press confer- ence at the Vale.
Certainly, not the inclusion of Dragons lock Andrew Coombs.
I wish Coombs all the best for tomorrow. I have been there, and running out for your Wales debut is massive moment in your life.
But, in truth, he was nowhere near my radar for this crucial Six Nations opener against Ireland and I am sure a number of other observers will say the same.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Wednesday, May 22 2013
I can't remember anybody eulogising about Coombs's form for the Dragons this season, yet he finds himself plunged into an international match of this magnitude.
What it does show is how desperate the situation has got regarding our second rows, or lack of them.
No Luke Charteris, no Alun Wyn Jones, no Bradley Davies, no Ryan Jones, while Ian Evans comes in without a minute of rugby under his belt since November.
Surely, Wales can only expect an hour out of Evans tomorrow.
At the start of the season he was one of my tips for a Lions place and is one of the best line-out forwards around.
I am sure he has done plenty of work on his aerobic fitness during his spell on the sidelines, but it is still a massive ask of the Osprey to go into a high-octane Test like this with no match fitness to speak of.
I feel his Liberty team-mate James King, who has been outstanding for the Ospreys in some Heineken Cup contests, is unfortunate to miss out, as is Justin Tipuric.
Obviously, selections in one position have a knock-on effect on others and only Rob Howley will know whether the issues at lock have impacted on the back-row selection.
There is also a bigger picture to this.
I have spoken in the past about Sam Warburton perhaps being reluctant to move across to the blindside, particularly in Lions year, and maybe that also was a factor.
I am a big fan of Aaron Shingler of the Scarlets. He is a fantastic athlete and was one of the big pluses of the autumn, but I am desperately disappointed not to see Tipuric in there.
The Ospreys seven is one of the form players in the UK, an openside who would allow Wales to play with greater freedom.
If Wales do feel there are front-five issues — remember, Gethin Jenkins hasn't played much rugby of late either — then Tipuric would have been the ideal man to complement a high-tempo game-plan, allowing Wales to bring in the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North, who caused so much damage in Dublin last year.
Of course, it is very much early days in this championship and Tipuric might still have a big part to play for Wales in the coming weeks.
I sincerely hope he does.
There are no such 'left-field' calls behind the scrum and I am delighted for Dan Biggar, who gets his chance in the No. 10 jersey.
I don't want to put added burden on Biggar's shoulders, but there is no hiding from the fact that it is a massive day for the 23-year-old, who will be making his Six Nations bow.
There are suggestions that Biggar should be told the jersey is his for the rest of the championship, but I feel that is probably unreasonable.
I know that Wales have a history in the way they keep faith with players, and the manner in which they stuck by Rhys Priestland during the autumn highlights that. And whatever happens against Ireland, I expect Biggar to keep the jersey for the trip to Paris.
However, it was a tight call between him and James Hook and if things aren't working out, Rob Howley might have to have a rethink.
Biggar will hope his half-back partner Mike Phillips can deliver.
Sometimes Phillips can be laboured in his delivery and decision-making and that won't help Biggar one bit.
The British Lion is a big-game animal, a player who relishes confrontat- ion and who has produced some special performances against Ireland in the past.
Phillips at his best will be a major factor if Wales are to open their campaign with a morale-boosting win.
As for Ireland, they have brought in two young wingers with real zip — Ulster's Craig Gilroy and Munster flyer Simon Zebo — and their duels with North and Alex Cuthbert will be fascinating.
The big four of Kearney, O'Driscoll, O'Brien and Best are back to strengthen them and I don't think the continued absence of Paul O'Connell should be overstated.
I sense a changing of the guard with the Irish pack and while O'Connell has great history, I wouldn't put much stock in the fact he is not out there tomorrow.
So what about the outcome? Too tight to call in my view. Historically, the away team tends to have a good record in this fixture, but being in Cardiff should give Wales an edge and I don't see why they can't nick a win.
Win tomorrow and the belief that seeped away during the autumn can come oozing back, and who knows what they are capable of after that?
The same, of course, goes for Ireland. With France and England to come in Dublin, if they emerge with a victory at the Millennium Stadium, they will be my favourites for the Championship.
I don't see any side doing the full house and claiming a Grand Slam this year.
I don't believe France are as strong as many are making out, England need to prove their win over the All Blacks in the autumn wasn't a one-off and have tough assignments in Dublin and Cardiff, while I expect Scotland and Italy to be scrapping it out to avoid that dreaded kitchen utensil once again.
And of course, it is all being played out amid a backdrop of Lions trials.
The beauty of this Championship, like tomorrow's match in Cardiff, is that it is shrouded in uncertainty.
Let's hope Wales can prove the doubters wrong and make it another six weeks to remember.