Ireland's top guns to see off maverick Dragons
Published 13/03/2010 | 05:00
WHEN the Welsh rugby team was in its pomp in the 1970s, their supporters, arrogant at the best of times, became insufferable.
"You don't beat Wales, you just score more points than them, boyo," was the favourite mantra, to the accompaniment of various 'come all ye' dirges from hokey troubadour Max Boyce. It made the Welsh rugby supporters deeply unpopular, not helped by stories of Irish fans, housed in the lower stands of the old Cardiff Arms Park, being urinated upon by Welsh supporters in the stands above them.
There is a name for people capable of such base acts -- NQOCs (Not Quite Our Class) -- but moral superiority aside, the problem for the Irish was the stinging shame in the stands was compounded by humiliation on the pitch. Ireland did not manage a single victory over Wales between 1970 and 1980, their best result the 9-9 draw in 1974.
That was then. Thirty-odd years on and the balance of power has switched dramatically in Ireland's favour, as pointed out yesterday by Limerick's Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins who (in keeping with the prevailing trend of politicians 'getting down' with technology) filed a blog about today's match.
"We have won eight of the last 10 meetings between these sides," he wrote. "It is perhaps no surprise this streak has coincided with the career of arguably Irish rugby's finest ever player -- Brian O'Driscoll. Only a handful of players around the world have reached the milestone of 100 caps for their country. Tomorrow, the Irish captain should join that group." Quite.
Anyone wishing to engage Deputy Collins on matters rugby can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org, but you don't need to be chasing votes to realise that, since Wales' 70s heyday, Ireland have not exactly been wetting themselves at the prospect of taking on the Taffs.
Even in the 1990s -- acknowledged as one of the grimmest periods in Irish rugby history -- Wales were put away on a regular basis. Between 1995 and 1999, despite regular canings elsewhere, Ireland beat the Welsh in five of their six meetings, including the pool victory at the 1995 World Cup that set up their subsequent quarter-final hammering by France.
In the last decade, those eight victories came with some hefty margins attached -- 36-6 (2001), 54-10 (2002), 35-12 (2003, in a World Cup warm-up), 36-15 (2004) and 31-5 (2006). And, while 2002's 44-point gap is unlikely to be reached, there are logical reasons to expect a comprehensive home win this afternoon.
Wales are dangerous -- as Ireland coach Declan Kidney noted yesterday, it is a country where rugby is the national game and babies are born with a ball in their hands -- but they are loose.
In 'Top Gun' terms, Wales would be Maverick (hugely skilful, but temperamental and wholly unpredictable), while Ireland would be the Ice-man character (clinically assured and imperiously successful). Of course, Paris was crash-and-burn time, but throughout 2009 and against Italy and England this year, Kidney's men have carried a focus wholly absent in their Welsh counterparts.
In the comebacks against Scotland and France, Wales played some mesmerising rugby, showcasing the running abilities of Lee Byrne, Shane Williams, James Hook and Jamie Roberts.
However, in both cases there was an element of 'switching off' in their opponents -- the Scots stopped playing rugby and sat, petrified, on their lead while the French lost interest after going 20-0 in front.
Ireland's defence, unhinged by first-half ill-discipline, wobbled badly in Paris but returned to its claustrophobic best against England. The caveat comes with the fact that England had the attacking potency of an asthmatic eunuch -- plenty of huff and puff but no penetration -- and Wales will ask questions of Les Kiss's defensive system which England were incapable of.
But if Ireland's front-up defence is convincing, so too is their 'scramble' (the in-vogue term for making cover tackles) and, in as much as it is possible to analyse off-the-cuff opponents, Kiss will have his homework done.
Hook is brimming with attacking ability, but is a player who is capable of throwing away games as much as he is capable of winning them.
Out-half is his natural position but Stephen Jones is a sacred cow for the Welsh at 10 and accommodating Hook at outside centre increases the opportunities for on-rushing defenders to take advantage of his penchant for 'over-the-top' passes. Much has been made of Tommy Bowe's joust with Ospreys club-mate Shane Williams.
It's a battle of stepper versus surger, but the two could well cancel each other out; although Bowe's pronounced height advantage should see liberal use of the cross-field kick.
When Ireland have the ball, the Welsh have shown in their three previous outings that they are vulnerable to organised, intelligent attacking play and, as they demonstrated forcibly against England, the Irish are extremely dangerous off set-piece ball.
And, the home side should enjoy plenty more possession than they managed in Twickenham for it is the pack where Irish superiority looks most pronounced.
Adam Jones was the surprise success of last summer's Lions tour and proved his worth as a top-quality scrummager. It is another test for Cian Healy as his international education continues, but the Leinster youngster looks increasingly at home in the Ireland No 1 jersey and will get better and better.
Matthew Rees came through that expedition in credit also but his line-out throwing can be dodgy and forwards coach Gert Smal and his air controllers will be waiting.
The Irish have a definite edge in the second-row. Paul O'Connell's handling in the loose let him down against England, but his line-out work was top quality and the pack leader's influence in Ireland's successful end-game was huge, while Donncha O'Callaghan put in a decent shift at Twickenham after a month on the sidelines. When Munster travelled to Welford Road for a Heineken Cup clash with Leicester in 2003, O'Callaghan and O'Connell dominated Martin Johnson and Ben Kay, who would go on to lock England's successful World Cup run a few months later.
Seven years on and the old 'thunderbolt and lightning' partnership is as effective as ever -- certainly too strong for Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris -- with Leo Cullen an excellent option off the bench.
The back-row was superb against England and could run amok this afternoon. Jonathan Thomas' Tom Croft-esque skills are suited to certain occasions but -- against big-hitters like Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace -- they are something of a luxury.
Gareth Delve is a meat and two veg No 8; he will roll and rumble but it is nothing the Irish trio and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary have not dealt with before.
The class act in the Welsh pack is open-side Martyn Williams but, though the Cardiff man is as canny as ever, at 34, his physical influence is on the wane.
As ever, the interpretations of the referee -- South African Craig Joubert -- will be significant, particularly at the breakdown, and the Irish have worked on the discipline issues that saw them conceded 14 penalties to England's six.
The last time he played in Croke Park, Jonathan Sexton ran the show against South Africa and that memory will give him confidence today. That confidence will be boosted by nailing a few kicks early on and he poses a running threat capable of catching the Welsh off guard.
The game against England, particularly in the first half, was a turgid affair for protracted periods, but this one could be a belter. Ireland will look to set the tone up front and take them on with quick ball while the Welsh will attack from all angles.
That would make for compelling viewing but could end up as something of a horror show for the Welsh because, when all is said and done, they are NQOC.