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Midfield magic can carry Irish into semis


Ireland v Wales, Wellington, Saturday (KO 6am) live RTE2

The next day of reckoning is almost here. Ireland are on the brink of breaking down previous World Cup barriers. Wales are one win away from becoming favourites to progress to the final.

As form and logic stand, this is the stronger of the two Six Nations quarter-finals. Whichever Celtic nation can impose their game plan and destroy the opposition blueprint for success will proceed to the penultimate stage of the tournament.

The weather in the Wellington 'Cake Tin' is usually unfriendly to the dry ball game. The wind-chill factor can freeze the soul. The rain can cut into the face. It could really boil down to who can execute under the severest pressure of the conditions and the prize at stake.

The key for Ireland will be the success their ball carriers -- particularly the back row of Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip -- enjoy in breaking the gain line.

If openside scavenger Sam Warburton is forced into retreat, it is a different ball game altogether when trying to turn over ball on the back-foot in the face of Ireland's explosive runners.

True, Ireland have, by far, the greater level of experience at winning when it counts. But Wales possess match winners like captain Warburton and wing George North, who are untainted by a career of under-delivering.

The Welsh also enjoy a huge physical advantage in their midfield, while lacking the experience of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll.

The Irish pair have been timing their return to form after dealing with injury problems that have halted their pre-season and pre-tournament schedules. Perhaps, this has been a blessing in disguise.

While Ireland's form has been climbing, hooker Rory Best is a focal point for much of what they do at the lineout, in the maul and around the fringe defence.

The prospect of starting Sean Cronin at hooker could feed into Welsh ambitions to disrupt the Irish lineout where they will challenge high and hard.

Verdict: Ireland

Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray; C Healy, R Best/S Cronin, M Ross, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, J Roberts, S Williams; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins, H Bennett, A Jones, L Charteris, A Wyn-Jones, D Lydiate, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.