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Roberts: Wales driven by hurt of semi-final exit

UP the hall in a London studio, Jamie Heaslip plays down the idea of doling out retribution this weekend for Ireland's World Cup exit at the hands of Wales. In another room, Jamie Roberts talks up Ireland's "revenge mission" in Dublin on Sunday.

As ever, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There's a giddy optimism about Wales, built on the back of a successful World Cup campaign and a gutsy semi-final defeat to France. And as spring rolls around, the Welsh public have at least one eye on the Grand Slam, with their final game at home to France already sold out.

In post-World Cup Wales, the mood shifted definitively away from hope and towards expectation of what could be a third Grand Slam in eight seasons, a feat that would equal the Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Gerald Davies inspired team of the 1970s.

Six Nations championships can't be won on the opening weekend but they can be lost. A quirk of the fixture list means Ireland face Wales in back-to-back tournament games in another instalment of a 130-year-old rivalry that has gathered both significance and needle over the past decade or so.

Roberts described Wales' World Cup win over Ireland as the "most emotionally charged game I've played in" and with so much at stake at Lansdowne Road, Sunday is unlikely to be any different.

"That game in Wellington, it was the most emotionally charged game I've played in. The Welsh playing Ireland in a World Cup quarter, it doesn't get much bigger for the home nations, really," said Roberts.

"I don't think we've put together a more complete game. We kicked well, we defended well, we attacked well and kept the ball, and we took points when we were in the strike zone."

Brian O'Driscoll's absence has dominated the build-up on this side of the water, but Wales have had their own problems with absentees.

In the run-up to the World Cup, they visited the same cryotherapy facility in Poland that Ireland used before their doomed 2007 tournament and they visited a similar venue last week, but the injuries have mounted.

Warren Gatland won't name his team until Friday to give out-half Rhys Priestland and flanker Dan Lydiate every chance to prove their fitness. Veteran Stephen Jones has been called up, though James Hook is likely to start at No 10 should Priestland be ruled out.

But with the likes of George North making their presence felt, Roberts -- himself a doubt with a knee injury -- acknowledges that Wales are under pressure to deliver a big tournament.

"As an athlete, I don't think I've seen anyone as scary as George North. He's a pretty scary bloke. His physical attributes are up there, I'm pretty sure, with some of the best," he said.

"Put him in space and he's a very dangerous player and hopefully, he can show his class again. I think he showed everyone at the World Cup what he's about and at the age of 18 it's pretty incredible.

"The Welsh public will be very excited by what lies ahead. As players, albeit it was a very good tournament for us, we're still hurting from losing the World Cup semi-final by a point. It's important to use that motivation and raise the bar again. You stop raising the bar in international rugby and you come unstuck."

And Wales and Ireland's fortunes look set to be intertwined for the foreseeable future. Sunday's game will go at least part of the way towards deciding the next Lions coach, while Roberts likes the IRFU's mooted policy regarding the recruitment of foreigners by Leinster, Munster and Ulster.

"The idea of only one (foreign) player per position, I think that's fantastic," he said.

"You think 'well, there are three guys who are playing for that green jersey week in and week out', in competition with each other. That can only benefit Irish rugby."

Irish Independent