Ireland bring in Mason to save their season

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Rugby Union

Simon Mason, the 22-year-old Orrell full-back with three grandparents from Dublin, was yesterday summoned to rescue Ireland's Five Nations season from ignominy when he was chosen for his debut against Wales at Lansdowne Road a week tomorrow.

Mason's inclusion for the concussed captain Jim Staples - now ex-captain after being succeeded by Niall Hogan - is but one among six changes of personnel, and another three of position, from the team annihilated by France. As Pat Whelan, Ireland's manager, made clear, there could have been more.

The contrast with the Welsh, who have derived solace from the manner of their narrow defeats by England and Scotland, is complete. Yesterday was only the fifth time in the history of Welsh international rugby that an unchanged line-up had been named for three games in a row and the first since Wales' last Grand Slam campaign in 1978.

If there was an issue it was at outside-half, although Neil Jenkins has not had enough rugby to stake a realistic claim to supplant Arwel Thomas. Yesterday, Bristol announced with relief that Thomas had signed a three- year contract to stay with them, thereby ending speculation that he would accept the small fortune available from Harlequins or indeed return to Welsh club rugby.

On another contractual note, the 24 players in the Wales squad have agreed terms with the WRU which will make them pounds 5,000 each up to the autumn.

And the 21 players who participate in each of the seven scheduled internationals in that period will receive a match fee and win bonuses, which could take payments to a minimum of pounds 19,000. Only Emyr Lewis and Simon Hill of the 24 have yet to sign.

So the squad are happy, Thomas is happy and the WRU is too, in the expectation that the Millennium Commission will today announce funding of pounds 47m towards a new Cardiff Arms Park to be built ready for the 1999 World Cup. The Irish, though, are unfamiliarly miserable but familiarly desperate, one of their solutions being to choose a new captain whose place in the side had been under close consideration.

Hogan has the decent excuse that he had been working most of the hours the good Lord gave while training as a doctor. Now this situation has improved - and Whelan ventures to hope that so has his scrum-half's service to David Humphreys, who has been contentiously asked not to play in London Irish's cup quarter- final against West Hartlepool tomorrow. "We discussed Niall Hogan's position at length," Whelan admitted. "Nobody knows more than Niall Hogan that he had a poor game in Paris in terms of his passing, etc, etc.''

Other changes bring the return of Maurice Field and Simon Geoghegan to the threequarters, and Paul Wallace at prop for the disgraced Peter Clohessy, with Northampton's Ulsterman Allen Clarke having his first full game at hooker. There is an almost complete change in the second and back rows, which includes the recall of Denis McBride and a switch of position for most of the rest.

IRELAND (v Wales, Lansdowne Road, 2 March): S Mason (Orrell); S Geoghegan (Bath), J Bell (Northampton), M Field (Malone), N Woods (Blackrock College); D Humphreys (London Irish), N Hogan (Terenure College, capt); N Popplewell (Newcastle), A Clarke (Northampton), P Wallace (Blackrock College), G Fulcher (Constitution), J Davidson (Dungannon), D Corkery (Constitution), V Costello (St Mary's College), D McBride (Malone). Replacements: K McQuilkin (Bective Rangers), P Burke (Constitution), C Saverimutto (Sale), H Hurley (Old Wesley), T Kingston (Dolphin), P Johns (Dungannon).

WALES: J Thomas; I Evans (Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), N Davies, W Proctor (Llanelli); A Thomas (Bristol), R Howley (Bridgend); A Lewis, J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), J Davies, Gareth Llewellyn (Neath), D Jones, E Lewis, H Taylor (Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli). Replacements: G Thomas (Bridgend), N Jenkins (Pontypridd), A Moore, L Mustoe (Cardiff), S Williams (Neath).