Rugby Union: Coach Gatland warns against rare case of Irish optimism

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The Independent Online
IRELAND expects, and all that, and therein lies the rub. Maintaining a national tradition of veering from extreme pessimism to unbridled optimism, victory over Wales is confidently expected at Lansdowne Road this afternoon after the unexpectedly strong showing in Paris. The degree to which this optimism spreads to the home dressing-room may well determine the outcome.

It may sound cliched, but there's an element of truth in the old adage that Irish teams are happiest when underdogs. Indeed, perhaps the Lansdowne Road crowd are as well, when one compares the frenzied atmosphere for the visit of the All Blacks to the somnolent air for the game against the Scotland. After the latter encounter, the team was pilloried. Now, they're everybody's favourite team again hereabouts. Yes, fear was one of the main sources of motivation against a French side halfway towards a second successive Grand Slam. With the best will in the world, this Welsh team does not strike that same fear into anybody.

Identifying and ensuring the correct mental approach is one of the prime tasks facing Warren Gatland, the pragmatic Kiwi coach, who has brought Ireland back to basics after the more utopian ideals of Brian Ashton.

"I heard a couple of players' comments that they didn't consider the Welsh to be a big threat, and that was kicked into touch straightaway. I have reminded them that all internationals are difficult and that any side are going to be tough opposition."

Gatland has demonstrated an acute understanding of the Irish psyche and has shown himself to be an expert motivator both with Connaught and now with Ireland.

Aside from instilling more self-belief, he has also brought the team back to basics. "One-nil would do," he says. Hence, something similar to the more structured game plan which applied against France seems likely. Ireland's strength is in their pack, where the set pieces have been excellent all season, and once again Connor McGuinness and Eric Elwood can be expected to test the Welsh in the air early and often, while also kicking for the corners.

By contrast, Welsh prowess rests in their back-line, even if Scott Gibbs' big hits and ability to bounce off props may be missed. Accordingly, Robert Howley has been extolling a more expansive game plan.

"We want to go out against Ireland and play the traditional handling game Welsh rugby is famous for," he said. "There was a lot of pressure before the Scotland game and, although we won, the performance level didn't match our expectations. Unlike at Wembley, I am sure we can score tries to beat Ireland."

None the less, the last time Wales beat Ireland, it was Neil Jenkins' boot which steered them to a 17-15 victory in Dublin four years ago.

Kevin Bowring, the Wales coach, is under no illusions about the task facing his side. "We are fully aware of the commitment, the passion, the intensity, that they will throw at us, especially early on in the game," he said.

"When you play against the Irish they sometimes seem to have a few more than 15 on the field, and it is usually chaos and mayhem for that opening period.

"We know it will be a very physical challenge. They will really come at us, buoyed up by their performance against France and also disappointed that they haven't registered a win in the Five Nations yet."

Home advantage has been negligible in this fixture, with only two home wins in the last 14 years. Against that, Ireland have won the last four meetings including a World Cup win in South Africa three years ago, and will be going for a record fourth successive Five Nations win over the Welsh.

About the safest prediction to make is that this is a classically 50- 50 Celtic confrontation, and the biggest surprise will be if there's more than a score in it at the end.

at Lansdowne Road

C Clarke Terenure College 15 K Morgan Pontypridd

R Wallace Saracens 14 W Procter Llanelli

R Henderson Wasps 13 A Bateman Richmond

K Maggs Bristol 12 L Davies Cardiff

D Hickie St Mary's 11 G Thomas Cardiff

E Elwood Galwegians 10 N Jenkins Pontypridd

C McGuiness St Mary's 9 R Howley Cardiff, capt

R Corrigan Greystones 1 A Lewis Cardiff

K Wood Harlequins, capt 2 G Jenkins Swansea

P Wallace Saracens 3 D Young Cardiff

P Johns Saracens 4 M Voyle Llanelli

M O'Kelly London Irish 5 A Moore Swansea

D Corkery Bristol 6 R Appleyard Swansea

A Ward Ballynahinch 7 K Jones Ebbw Vale

V Costello St Mary's 8 C Charvis Swansea

Referee: E Morrison (Eng) Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1)