The inaugural Nations Cup starts this evening, when Wales travel to Dublin to play the Republic of Ireland. The tournament is a re-boot of the Home Nations Championship, which was discontinued in the 1980s. England are not involved, but for the four competing nations (Scotland and Northern Ireland play tomorrow) it will provide a useful accompaniment to their Euro 2012 qualification campaigns.
If that is not motivation enough, tonight's game will be Wales's first under the new management of Gary Speed. The man who won 85 Welsh caps replaced John Toshack in December and has been tasked with hauling his country up from 116th in the Fifa rankings. Robert Earnshaw yesterday outlined the importance of the fixture. "For me it's no friendly," said the forward. "It's a huge game. We are going there with a freshness about the camp as Gary has taken over and everyone wants to do well for the new manager and that can have a big effect."
Unfortunately for Speed, he will be without his two most promising young players. Both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have pulled out with injury, as have Boaz Myhill, Danny Gabbidon and Ched Evans. Craig Bellamy, who is unavailable as a result of an ongoing knee complaint, has travelled with the squad regardless.
While the Republic continue under the management of Giovanni Trapattoni, they too will have a sense of renewal tonight, as they grant debuts to Seamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark. Coleman, who has impressed with his energetic performances for Everton this season, will start on the right wing while Clark will play at left-back, a role he has performed so far this year for Aston Villa. In the absence of captain Robbie Keane, the armband will pass to Shay Given, while Jon Walters will partner Kevin Doyle up front.
"This will be a good opportunity for the young players," explained Trapattoni. "Now, we have a group of about 30 to 35 good players to choose from, much more than when I started in this job. The game against Wales is a good opportunity to evaluate our other options." Ranked 35th in the world by Fifa, and hosting the tournament in Dublin, the Republic ought to be the favourites for the cup, although Northern Ireland sit just three places behind them in the rankings.
Tonight's match will revive a competition that has been dormant since 1984, when dwindling attendances pointed to a lack of interest compared to the more prestigious international tournaments. England and Scotland withdrew from the final competition while Northern Ireland could not play in 1980-81 because of the Troubles.
The Nations Cup is not a direct replacement for the Home Nations, however, because of England's absence. Former Scotland midfielder Craig Burley was keen to point out that this would not be a deeply felt loss. "England are not too big for this competition," he argued, "but it's their decision at the moment not to enter. If they had come back from South Africa with the World Cup then they would have been able to stick two fingers up at everyone, but they didn't. They are not Spain or Brazil and they have their own problems at the moment, not least with their manager who can't even seem to answer the most innocuous of questions in a press conference."
England's absence from the cup is not necessarily permanent. The Football Association is thought to be considering hosting the next tournament in 2013 at Wembley, to mark the governing body's 150th anniversary.
Home truths: what is the nations cup?
A biennial four-nation tournament to take place in the years in between major international tournaments. Nations play each other once, in February and May.
All matches are at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, 19.45 kick-off.
Tonight: Republic of Ireland v Wales
Tomorrow: Scotland v Northern Ireland
24 May: Ireland v Northern Ireland
25 May: Wales v Scotland
27 May: Wales v Northern Ireland
29 May: Ireland v Scotland
The 51,700-seater arena was built on the site of the old Lansdowne Road. It will also host this year's Europa League final on 18 May.Reuse content