Pack strength is key factor for Irish dark horses

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The Independent Online

The World Cup begins today not at Twickenham, but in the equally unlikely setting of Windsor Park in Belfast, where Ireland will have the honour of launching the tournament by taking on Samoa.

The World Cup begins today not at Twickenham, but in the equally unlikely setting of Windsor Park in Belfast, where Ireland will have the honour of launching the tournament by taking on Samoa.

The Irish are potential dark horses and seem strongest in the pack, with Danny Williams, an Australian Grand Final winner with Melbourne, packing down between the Great Britain props Terry O'Connor and Barrie McDermott.

The St Helens captain Chris Joynt makes his Irish debut in the back row, alongside two other highly-rated players, Luke Ricketson and Warrington-bound Kevin Campion.

Today's other two matches form a double-header at the Charléty Stadium, once the home of the ill-fated Paris St Germain. France, who hope to reach the quarter-finals from their home-based group, meet Papua New Guinea. That game is followed by South Africa versus Tonga. The French have opted for Freddie Banquet at full-back and Yacine Dekkiche on the wing, whilst the return to fitness of Jerome Guisset is a boost for the pack.

The Hull utility player Stanley Gene is fit to partner Adrian Lam at half-back for the Kumuls, after recovering from a groin injury. South Africa have apparently set their stall for an aggressive approach, with their captain Jamie Bloem, normally a boisterous second-rower, at scrum-half.

Tomorrow marks the first appearances of Scotland and Wales in the competition. The Scots play Lee Gilmour, who has just moved from Wigan to Bradford, in his favourite centre position against the Maoris, who have the tasty-looking combination of Tawera Nikau and Tyran Smith at the back of their scrum.

Wales, who meet the Cook Islands - captained by Kevin Iro - at Wrexham, have Keiron Cunningham back to face his St Helens team-mate after recovering from the back and hamstring strains that kept him out of the win over South Africa in the warm-up international last week.

Unlike the Irish, the Welsh pack has a scratch look to it, with Anthony Farrell, a back-rower with Leeds, and Leigh's Dave Whittle named as the props.

Russia, the ultimate underdogs, are up against Fiji at Barrow, but in many ways the most intriguing of the first-round games pits the second favourites New Zealand against the Lebanese at Gloucester.

The Cedars have had a number of injury and illness doubts, including their undoubted star, Hazem El Masri. However, he was still named in their 17 yesterday, without coach John Elias revealing in which position he will play.

The Lebanese will give the Kiwis a rugged work-out up front, but New Zealand's coach Frank Endacott says they should not expect to intimidate his side. "They would be foolish to play that way against us because we won't go backwards at all," he said.

A new face in the Kiwi line-up will be Leeds' new signing from Brisbane, Tonie Carroll - born in New Zealand but raised in Australia.

The game's International Federation has agreed to a resumption of tours between the major league-playing nations, as well as a World Cup in 2004. Its location has yet to be decided, but it is likely to be back in Britain and France.

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