Saturday 29 April 2017

Why history has made Wales feel like the away team when Ireland come to Cardiff

Three home wins in 34 years has made the Welsh desperate for victory

Mike Phillips clashes with Donncha O'Callaghan in the 2009 Six Nations (Getty)
Mike Phillips clashes with Donncha O'Callaghan in the 2009 Six Nations (Getty)

Jack Austin

“Probably, out of all the teams in the Six Nations, the Welsh players dislike the Irish the most. Players' experiences against Ireland haven't always been the greatest, so they are very motivated.”

That was the now Lions head coach Warren Gatland stoking the flames ahead of Wales’ 2009 Six Nations decider with Ireland, with their opponents chasing their first Grand Slam in 61 years. Something they managed thanks to the most unpopular Irishman in Wales, Ronan O’Gara.

For the Welsh, there is no better feeling in rugby – or in any other sport for that matter – than beating the English. The Stereophonics wrote a song about it, such is the obsession on that side of the Severn. There’s no song about beating the Irish.

Read more: The Left Wing: 'Wales can be torn apart in the wide channels' - Luke Fitzgerald

Gatland’s quotes about disliking Ireland most were just a way of riling their opponents ahead of, arguably, their biggest game since 1948. However, what he was correct about is the desperation Wales’ players have to beat their Celtic rivals.

Since 1983, Wales have only managed to avoid defeat to the Irish in Cardiff three times, compared to the 12 games they have beaten them in away from home, and all three of those have come since 2005. Wales’ players have grown up with this pain and that’s why it shows on the field. They don’t dislike the Irish the most – they’re just anxious to beat them. Repeatedly losing at home is rather embarrassing, after all.

That’s why there’s so much fire in this fixture, why the likes of motor-mouthed Mike Phillips going at it with O’Gara in a verbal sparring match often lasting the full 80 minutes.

And expect more of the same on Friday night, with Rhys Webb, perhaps Phillips’ heir-apparent in the talking stakes, going head-to-head with Conor Murray, who will give as good as he gets.

It is also a Lions audition of sorts. Webb and Murray, perhaps slightly harshly on England’s Ben Youngs, are the two stand-out scrum halves at Gatland’s disposal at the moment and will be looking to make the No 9 shirt their own.

Then you have the battle of the flankers, with CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien vying for superiority of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. There’s also Rory Best’s contest with Ken Owens at hooker and Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney competing to be Stuart Hogg’s understudy.

Mix into that the sub-plot of Wales dropping out of the top eight in the world if they lose and there really is a lot to play for Rob Howley’s side, even if Ireland are the only team on Friday who can still win the title.

Wales have been guilty of individual errors which have cost them in their defeats to England and Scotland and Warburton is well aware of how that has cost them a run at the championship this year.

“We have points to prove,” said the former captain. “The second-half performance against Scotland was not up to scratch.

“When we actually look at the games (England and Scotland), if we were getting completely outplayed, I would be a little bit worried.

“But when we look back - and the players have spoken about it - it has been individual errors that have let us down in certain moments of matches.”

Those individual errors will be punished by the merciless Irish on Friday night and, underneath the lights with the roof firmly shut, the Principality Stadium will act as a pressure cooker in a fixture which has often boiled over.

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