CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Everything is set up for Ireland to have a great Six Nations.
They just have to avoid stuffing it up. Confidence is high from a rousing win over Argentina after blowing a good lead against South Africa in the autumn. A pile of injuries forced coach Declan Kidney to loosen his grip and do something daring, and Irish fans suddenly saw a vision of a brighter future.
Kidney has stayed on the bandwagon in passing the captaincy to No. 8 Jamie Heaslip from a reluctant Brian O'Driscoll, the inspirational skipper for eight years and 84 of his 120 tests. The aging O'Driscoll is fit again for the midfield, and back along with other key players in hooker Rory Best, flanker Sean O'Brien and fullback Rob Kearney. They offer a combined 245 caps.
O'Driscoll added an emotional element for Ireland in hinting that this may be his last Six Nations. "There's a strong possibility it could be my last," O'Driscoll told the BBC on Thursday. "But I haven't really allowed myself to start thinking about finishing. If you start thinking about it too early, you're one foot into retirement already."
The schedule is also favorable for Ireland, with both main title rivals, France and England, going to Lansdowne Road. Plus, Wales is vulnerable heading to their clash at Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
The Welsh are enduring their worst run in a decade, seven straight losses, five of them under interim coach Rob Howley. Confidence, form, and the player roll took big hits from Samoa, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia last November.
The injury toll has forced Howley to patch together a team to begin its title defense. The locks are Andrew Coombs, a converted flanker making his test debut out of Newport Gwent Dragons, and Ian Evans, who hasn't started a game since mid-November because of knee trouble.
The front and back rows, however, look impressive, with Adam Jones back after missing the autumn tests to complete the 2009 British and Irish Lions front row, and Aaron Shingler holding onto the blindside flank and keeping Justin Tipuric in the reserves. Also, Dan Biggar has been preferred over France-based James Hook for the flyhalf jersey vacated by the injured Rhys Priestland.
The losing streak has somewhat dampened expectations on Wales, but that would all change if it was to beat Ireland a fourth straight time this weekend. Ireland has more to lose than the Welsh. Defeat would evaporate all the good feelings from the November campaign and undercut the coaches' plans to lead the team to the 2015 World Cup. Also, another Six Nations would surely pass by without the title.
Only once in the last 17 years has a team lost its first game and gone on to win the championship, which France did in 2006, pipping Ireland on points difference. So a quick start is essential on Saturday.
"As a squad, we have worked hard over the past two weeks and go into Saturday excited and confident at defending our title," Howley said. "The Six Nations is all about momentum, and we know we have to hit the ground running against Ireland."
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Biggar, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Aaron Shingler, Ian Evans, Andrew Coombs, Adam Jones, Matthew Rees, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Ken Owens, Craig Mitchell, Paul James, Olly Kohn, Justin Tipuric, Liam Williams, Scott Williams, James Hook.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Craig Gilroy, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Simon Zebo, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip (captain), Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Mike McCarthy, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, David Kilcoyne, Declan Fitzpatrick, Donncha O'Callaghan, Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O'Gara, Keith Earls.