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If O'Driscoll isn't out to make a point to Gatland today then it's time for our greatest player to hang up his boots now

I HAVE a confession to make – I am a closet Welsh fan. I guess it's part of being a child growing up in the 1960s and a rugby-daft fan of the 1970s, but combine those formative eras and I declare myself smitten by everything Welsh.

Having been wooed by the daring deeds of Gareth (Edwards), Benny (Phil Bennett), BJ (Barry John), Gerald (TGR Davies), Grav' (Ray Gravell), JPR (Williams), Merv the Swerve (Mervyn Davies), DQ (Derek Quinnell), the Viet Gwent (the Pontypool front-row) and a whole host of other truly brilliant Welsh rugby players – and then having the thrill and honour of playing with and against most of these global superstars – my appreciation of, and affection for, rugby in the Principality was set in stone and it continues to this day.

Rugby is part of the DNA of Welsh folk everywhere. The game crosses every social divide, putting it on a par with New Zealand and Limerick for knowledge and passion from the grassroots up. They love their rugby in Wales. Invariably when they win, they do it in style. There is definitely a Welsh way.

Most would cite the All Blacks, maybe the Wallabies, possibly the French as their 'other' favourite rugby-playing nation, but, for me, it's the Welsh.

But, do I wish Warren Gatland, Sam Warburton and the rest of the new-age Welsh warriors well today? Now, what do you think?

When it comes to tribal warfare, this one's right up there alongside anything, anywhere. The Wallabies against the All Blacks may be the big one or, perhaps, the Boks versus the Kiwis, while, of course, England against just about anybody, ignites a special kind of passion.

But whether it's the geographical proximity or maybe domestic success on this side of the Irish Sea since the game went open, when green confronts red, the temperature hits boiling. It's a rugby rivalry with an in-built edge.

To that end, the compliments have been flying between Dublin and Cardiff all week as both camps refuse to give the other even the minutest psychological leg-up. Even Gatland has managed to keep that loose tongue pretty much quiet in the build-up to this one.

Needless to say, every Welsh player loves and respects every Irish player and, of course, vice versa. Alun-Wyn Jones added a touch of reality when suggesting "Dublin not Syria," although for a couple of hours this afternoon he might just have cause for a rethink on that one...

The new Lansdowne Road rocked for the first time when Ireland took on world champions New Zealand last November and you can expect the conservative lid to be blown off once again today. This rivalry is the real thing and – in the 2014 Six Nations context – it's as big as it gets.

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So, what can we expect from two squads loaded with power, pace and panache in abundance?

FOOLING

For starters, let's address the elephant in the room. Yes, the current Wales and Lions coach did drop Brian O'Driscoll and no it wasn't much ado about nothing justified by the outcome. In the race to out-charm the other, each camp has been at pains to play down 'Warrengate', 'Bodgate', 'Gattygate' whatever you care to call it. Talk of 'cuddly care Christmas cards' and 'aren't we really the best of friends' is not fooling anybody.

Of course, the man responsible for the selection decision has long parked it. To be fair it comes with the territory of the job, but if the player has the same laissez faire attitude to what could have been a confidence- sapping, career-threatening decision, then the time has come for our greatest ever exponent to hang up the boots now.

Human nature, allied to playing pride being what it is, O'Driscoll should be champing at the bit at this heaven-sent opportunity to make his point for himself and for his team. I know what it feels like to be dropped when in your pomp under the spotlight, I know the hurt it entails and I know the anger that festers towards those responsible (certainly while still playing) that never, ever goes away.

So, if Brian is not treating this as must-win match over and above the ordinary, then it really is game over.

He has publicly played it down – and that is as it should be – but privately I expect him to be relishing every minute of the chance to do his thing in the white heat of battle.

And far from detracting from the build-up at Carton House, this Lions issue should add an extra dimension to proceedings. Many things about the game have changed since the onset of professionalism – but not this. This will be personal to the man at the centre of it all and if not, then his time is up.

Despite losing Luke Charteris, the addition of Warburton and Gethin Jenkins makes for a stronger Welsh line-up than took on the Italians last week in Cardiff.

Schmidt, likewise, has pumped up his match-day 23 with the inclusion of his own returning Lions captain Paul O'Connell and Gordon D'Arcy to partner another former Lions captain in O'Driscoll. Heady times, indeed, for Celtic rugby.

VERDICT: Which side will benefit more from the added impetus I'm not too sure, but gut instinct, allied to the Schmidt factor, possibly that 'Syrian' home advantage and a bit of heart ruling the head, suggests Ireland... by a whisker.

 

Lancaster's men have the power to cut down blunt Scots

FOLLOWING what could – weather permitting – be an Aviva thriller, attention will switch to Murrayfield, where the most impressive side of the opening weekend face the least impressive of the six for me.

England, despite losing to France at the death, under Stuart Lancaster, looked a side making very real progress. They could and should have won in Paris last Saturday night.

By contrast, the Scots huffed and puffed in Dublin without ever threatening. They are what they are: good at retaining possession for long phases, but with very little to show for it.

That said, it is the Calcutta Cup, they are at home and they can surely only improve on last week's dismal effort.

But I like what Lancaster is doing with England and how he goes about his rugby business. They are still a young and developing side and that is why Calcutta Cup days represent such a large part of the learning process.

Verdict: On the basis that the England eight deliver again to order, I take Danny Care and the back three to drive that forward advantage home – and with a bit to spare.

Tomorrow in Paris we have a French side buoyed by last week's winning try at the death and on the scent of another Grand Slam and championship.

Should they succeed – and it is something they are well capable of – it has nothing, and I mean NOTHING, to do with the post-Lions year that's in it.

Were the game in Rome, you would be wary of another Six Nations banana skin for Les Bleus, but at Stade de France anything but a home win, given what they achieved in Le Crunch, is unthinkable.

The Azzurri will give it every last ounce, but the French look set to make it two home wins on the bounce to complete the perfect start.

Verdict: Italy to deliver another typically gutsy performance, but the moody French to cut loose in the final quarter and, just like the English in Edinburgh, take it without too much discomfort.


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