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Weakened Wales starting 6N defense at confident Ireland

Weakened Wales starting 6N defense at confident Ireland

For the first time in 15 years, Wales start the Six Nations without Alun Wyn Jones or Ken Owens.

The respective standard-bearer and heartbeat of the team are on a distinguished list of injured that has made bettors rank Wales fifth out of six to win the championship.

Nearly half the team that went to Paris last year gunning for the Grand Slam -- and lost to 14-man France on a last-minute try -- is missing from the opening match of the title defense against Ireland on Saturday at Lansdowne Road.

Beside Jones and Owens, there's Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau, Jonathan Davies and George North. Add Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Lydiate, and that's more than 820 caps of hard knocks unavailable. The starting lineup on Saturday counts 487 caps.

All eight, all of them British Lions, also missed games in the autumn, which meant coach Wayne Pivac got to work on a changing of the guard with the 2023 Rugby World Cup in mind. The new lightweight Wales wasn't up to scratch against New Zealand and South Africa but it had enough to overcome Fiji and Australia, both of which were undermined by red cards.

The team which beat Australia 29-28 with a Rhys Priestland penalty in injury time has been largely retained.

The tweaks are regular wing Josh Adams at center, Johnny McNicholl on the vacated wing, and late bloomer Will Rowlands in the second row, filling in for the totemic Jones. Priestland wasn't picked, and neither was veteran center Jonathan Davies because of a lack of club action. But former Lions back-rower Ross Moriarty was in the reserves a week after his first game since October.

New captain Dan Biggar has talked of Wales having "a bit of a swagger” as the reigning titleholder, while Pivac has been more sober about their current state.

“We're in a good space, albeit in training,” Pivac said. "There's still 15 green shirts to be put in front of us.”

Those green shirts would be the title favorite if their match with France next week was in Dublin instead of Paris.

Ireland is on an eight-match winning roll nearly a year long. In a breakthrough autumn, the team and coach Andy Farrell finally clicked in terms of ambition and execution. The Irish are still the most patient team in test rugby but playing at a higher tempo and with more width, and asking more questions of defenses.

Sandwiched by thrashings of Japan and Argentina in the autumn was Ireland's impressive defeat of the All Blacks. Since then, all four regions have reached the European Champions Cup playoffs (and all three of Wales' have not). Confidence is soaring.

There's only two changes to the starting lineup which met New Zealand, both enforced. Injured winger James Lowe has been replaced by uncapped Mack Hansen, who arrived from Australia only last summer from the Brumbies and was qualified by his Irish mum. Also, fit-but-not-match-fit lock Iain Henderson was replaced by Tadhg Beirne.

The last eight Six Nations matches between Ireland and Wales have not been won by the visitor, and there's no reason to doubt that will change in Dublin on Saturday.

However, Sexton wasn't playing up his side's advantages, especially in manpower.

"I'm not going to say that, because then I'm insulting the (Wales) guys coming in, and the guys coming are excellent players,” he said.

"The guys who are injured have big reputations because they played multiple tests for their country and performed week in and week out. The guys coming in are at the start of their journeys and could go on and have the same careers as the guys ahead of them.

"So there's not one ounce of complacency in our squad.”

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Lineups:

Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, James Hume.

Wales: Liam Williams, Johnny McNicholl, Josh Adams, Nick Tompkins, Louis Rees-Zammit, Dan Biggar (captain), Tomos Williams; Aaron Wainwright, Taine Basham, Ellis Jenkins, Adam Beard, Will Rowlands, Tomas Francis, Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Dewi Lake, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Ross Moriarty, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Owen Watkin.

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