Rugby Union: Elwood to lift Irish blues

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UPLIFTED one moment by the winning experience against England and downcast the next after losing to Scotland, Wales should be in good voice again after this afternoon's visit by Ireland to the Arms Park. They had better make the most of it, too, because a far more daunting task awaits in France when the Five Nations' Championship winds up later this month.

This is very much a yo-yo season for Wales but, with Alan Davies pulling the strings, nevertheless a welcome one to follow so much doom and gloom across the Severn. The former England B coach - what a loss he was to the English cause - has helped put the self-belief back into Welsh rugby. It never promised to be a quick job, but then Davies is a patient man.

After all, a second victory in three championship matches would not be such a bad return, going some way towards silencing those Welsh supporters who demand too much too soon from their re- emerging side. This, of course, is something that the Irish do not have to contend with as their followers have quite forgotten what a celebration bash feels like.

Wake upon wake must be taking its toll with a 12th in succession the prospect here after a dismal record that stretches right back to the 1991 World Cup and defeat by Scotland. Indeed, you have to return to the last century to find anything similar to this run, Ireland losing 10 on the trot in the 1880s.

If inheriting the streak is bad news for Gerry Murphy, then the new coach should draw strength from Nick Popplewell. The prop has packed down in all the previous reversals and it says much for his reserves that he is still regarded as a Lions loose-head prospect in New Zealand this summer.

That is an Irishman for you, but while Popplewell has stood his own ground the coming and goings elsewhere underline Irish problems. This is particularly the case at outside-half, where today's debutant, Eric Elwood, becomes the fifth player to be handed the No 10 jersey in 12 months by Ireland.

When the honour of representing the country at stand-off was once bestowed upon an Australian who had been busy hawking his wares around the home unions you began to wonder about the Irish selectors. Subsequently, and it serves them right, Brian Smith headed home for a career in rugby league.

Since Paul Dean retired from the position, the Irish have been taken in by Smith, tried converting the centre Vincent Cunningham, and welcomed aboard Ralph Keyes, Derek McAleese, Peter Russell and Niall Malone, the last in line booted out after the defeats against Scotland and France.

Now it is the turn of the 24- year-old Elwood, the first Connacht-born player to represent Ireland. He is a confident young man, too, after scoring over 90 points for Lansdowne in the club's unbeaten progress in the Second Division of the Irish League. 'I'm not worried about playing my first international in Cardiff,' he said.

Brave words by a player who took part in the Inter-Provincial Championship but was then overlooked for the Irish trial early in January when Malone was opposed by Paul Burke, who previously had represented England all the way up to under-21 level. Now Elwood is thrown in at the deep end and he said: 'I'm determined to keep my concentration and I'm lucky to have a scrum-half of Michael Bradley's experience to guide me.'

But will it be enough to lift old Ireland out of the doldrums? The answer is almost certainly a resounding no, the Irish already hit hard in the line-out by the loss of the lock Neil Francis. That is a bad start, even allowing for the fact Ireland have an impressive record in Cardiff - a draw two years ago and victories in all their previous visits going back to 1985 including the famous win in 1989 when Noel Mannion ran in a try from 70 yards.

Now it is the Welsh who are looking to run the ball and none more so than Neil Jenkins. Criticised for his performance in Edinburgh, the Pontypridd outside-half has said that he intends to open the game up - good for publicity, good for viewing if it comes off and potentially good for Wales' new Olympian wing Nigel Walker.