Sunday 25 February 2018

Careful talk can’t mask the desire to settle score

Ireland have point to prove against Welsh, says Michael Aylwin

Ireland have point to prove against Welsh
Ireland have point to prove against Welsh

WE know the routine. As much as mischievous members of the press and public like to stir things up, to heighten levels of drama, the players and coaches will not let so much as a flicker of emotion disrupt their publicrelations faces.

In this era of the ultimate professional, to admit to anything as primeval as the ebb and flow of emotion is not the done thing. Not in public, at least.

And so it is that the Ireland squad have batted away all suggestions that there might be extra venom in their veins today in a bid to avenge recent defeats to their opponents, Wales.

“These guys are too professional for that,” says Declan Kidney, without even the slightest ripple in his brow. “They just want to play the best game they can every time they go out. They're good men. They don't pick their matches.”

Yeah, yeah. However much a team want to play the best they can every time — and you assume that that is what they do want — it is clear that they do not always manage it. Sometimes a side fire themselves into life; sometimes they don't. This is a self-evident truth, and as often as not there is a primeval undercurrent determining it. The rest of us are free to pick our matches, even if the players are not, and this clash has been brewing nicely since Wales turfed Ireland out of the World Cup last year, since Wales broke the laws to beat Ireland in the Six Nations a few months earlier.

Ireland are almost at full strength for this one, with the weight of the Aviva Stadium behind them; Wales, meanwhile, arrive plagued by injury concerns and the niggling concern that is the form of their regions in the Heineken Cup. That said, it is only ‘almost’ full strength that Ireland find themselves at. And if there was one chink they would rather not have to fill it is precisely the one that has opened up at No 13.

After 12 championships of incalculable influence, the maestro that is Brian O'Driscoll will play no part this year. “It is going to be weird not having him around,” admits his replacement as captain, Paul O'Connell. “Whenever I've captained the team it's only ever been for a week here or there.

But the way Brian ran things, I probably won't be doing things a whole lot differently. He wanted everyone contributing anyway. I would have always tried to contribute as much as I could, as would others. “I remember captaining Ireland against France away,” he says. “I was a young guy. Probably, like all young guys, I put a lot of pressure on myself. Having captained Munster for a while now, I realise you've just got to prepare yourself as well as you can. There's no point in putting extra pressure on yourself after that. That's something I probably would have done when I was younger, and I think young captains tend to do.”

That might almost be interpreted as a dig at the man who will be arguing the toss with him in the tunnel today, Sam Warburton, Wales's young captain — but only if we were trying to stir up yet more drama, more plots within plots.

And, to give Ireland their due, they have enough on their plate proving their worth in a competition many feel they should have dominated more often than they have over the past decade. Despite their settled team, despite the form of their provinces, despite a fixture list that sees them play three games at home, the bookies have had them as far out as 6/1, fourth favourites for the title.

“That's probably because of our previous record,” says O'Connell. “When we get ourselves right, we're as good as anyone. It's just a question of doing that. You look at that World Cup game against Wales — they performed, we didn't. I know if we can do that week in, week out, we can win the competition.” Whether “that game” against Wales is actually being used as motivation, only those within Ireland's inner circle can know.

But the wider circle of Irish rugby will close in on the new stadium on Lansdowne Road with a tribal, decidedly non-professional intensity of feeling.

No, there should be no need to talk this one up.


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