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6N: Scrumhalf scrutiny for Ireland and Wales in Dublin

Conor Murray and John Cooney sat side by side in front of the media at Ireland’s training center outside Dublin, dispelling any talk of awkwardness as they battle for their country’s No. 9 jersey. Over in Cardiff, the fight for the Welsh scrumhalf spot was just as intense this week, with the return to fitness of recent first-choice Gareth Davies offering a third strong option.

Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac would have expected selection dilemmas after taking charge of Ireland and Wales, respectively, a few months ago following the Rugby World Cup in Japan. The biggest ones are coming in the same position.

The Celtic rivals meet in Dublin on Saturday, both looking to make it back-to-back wins to start the Six Nations, and all the talk in the buildup has been about the little guys in the teams. Murray has been Ireland’s No. 1 scrumhalf for eight years, starting all three tests for the British and Irish Lions against the All Blacks in the most recent tour in 2017, and striking up a great combination with Jonathan Sexton outside him.

But for the first time as an Irish mainstay, Murray is under real pressure. His understudy, Cooney, is in excellent form for Ulster and delivering an irresistible case to start ahead of Murray. Farrell is keeping the faith with Murray for the Wales game, but another effective display by Cooney off the bench could yet force change for the tough trip to England in round three.

“It’s not difficult,” Murray said, when asked if he could understand the calls for the inclusion of Cooney, who was sitting next to him. “It’s all credit to John. He is having an unbelievable season and you respect that.

“It does add a bit in terms of motivation. You want to put in a performance. People start writing you off and things like that, so naturally there was a bit of that there. But in our position, having a calm head is probably one of the most important things you could do, so trying to balance that was the challenge.”

Pivac’s decision at No. 9 might be harder. With Davies unavailable as he completed his recovery from a groin injury, Tomos Williams started for Wales in the 42-0 win over Italy and was one of Pivac’s star players with his darting runs and sharp passing.

It would have been tough on Williams to be dropped, and he wasn't. He will start against Ireland, even though Davies is fit again and regarded as one of the best scrumhalves in the world, especially after his impressive performances in the World Cup.

Further muddying the waters has been the renewed availability of Rhys Webb after he returned to Welsh club rugby following a two-year spell at French club Toulon, which meant he wasn’t allowed to play for his country.

Pivac has praised Webb’s impact in training and, at 31, Webb is the oldest and more experienced of the three. Yet he was left out of the matchday 23 completely this week, his place on the bench taken by Davies.

The only change made by Pivac to his starting XV saw Nick Tompkins, a try-scorer off the bench on debut against Italy, coming into the centers. George North moved to the wing, with Johnny McNicholl dropped to the bench.

Pivac was heartened by Wales’ five-try display against Italy, which came after a high-scoring match against the Barbarians that kicked off his tenure last year, but knows Ireland will be a step up and his toughest test so far.

"It feels like it really starts now," said Pivac, who will be looking to lead Wales for its first Six Nations win in Dublin since 2012. Ireland made two injury-enforced changes, with No. 8 Caelan Doris left out while undertaking head-injury protocols and center Garry Ringrose missing after undergoing a hand operation.

Peter O'Mahony was brought into the blindside flank, allowing CJ Stander to shift to No. 8, while Robbie Henshaw starts at center.

Lineups:

Ireland: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O'Mahony, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rob Herring, Cian Healy. Reserves: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Max Deegan, John Cooney, Ross Byrne, Keith Earls.

Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Nick Tompkins, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Wainwright, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Jake Ball, Dillon Lewis, Ken Owens, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Ryan Elias, Rhys Carre, Leon Brown, Adam Beard, Ross Moriarty, Gareth Davies, Owen Williams, Johnny McNicholl.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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