Rugby Union:: Ireland ready for the battle

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IRISH FORWARDS traditionally like to talk an ultra-physical game as a new Five Nations' Championship draws near and they nearly always play one, too. But Paddy Johns, the cold-eyed Ulsterman who captains this season's emerald vintage, brought a whole new dimension to the pre-match psychological battle with the French yesterday by appearing at a Dublin press conference with his eyes already blackened. As a statement of intent, it spoke volumes.

Johns was quick to deny that the damage had been caused in an over-enthusiastic training session, explaining that the rearrangement of his delicate features had occurred during the pitched Tetley's Bitter Cup battle between Saracens and Lydney in the Forest of Dean last Sunday. He was not at all keen to discuss his part in the rumpus that led to him being manhandled by a member of the crowd, as well as half the Lydney pack. "To be sure, rugby's a game of physical contact," he grinned before disappearing for a bite to eat.

Still, there was an unmistakeable air of aggressive intent about the Irish as they worked themselves up for a second emotion-charged Lansdowne Road occasion in the space of seven days. "Ulster's success in the European Cup last weekend has raised huge expectations the length and breadth of the country," affirmed Donal Lenihan, the national team manager, who played in the second row when his country last put one over the Tricolores in 1983.

"It is essential that we perform to the maximum of our ability and, to do that against a French side embarking on their quest for a triple Grand Slam, we must be prepared to taken them on up front. We must be ready for a very hard, physical encounter."

It will certainly be that, especially as the bull of Agen, Philippe Benetton, is now in the visitors' starting line-up tomorrow. The powerful blind- side flanker was promoted when Marc Lievremont limped out of training with a strained thigh. Marc Raynaud takes Benetton's place on the bench.

Worryingly for the Irish, Emile Ntamack has not withdrawn. The knee he damaged while putting Italy to the sword in Genoa last weekend is said to be serviceable. "He's the big danger to us," said Warren Gatland, the Irish coach.

"If you relax for a moment and give a flair player like Ntamack some space, he'll score from anywhere," added Lenihan.

Scotland finally revealed their injury-riddled hand for tomorrow's opener with Wales at Murrayfield. Shorn of Jamie Mayer, their muscular young outside centre, the selectors have asked Gregor Townsend to fill the hole.

"Gregor is a versatile operator and he has played a good deal of rugby in the No 13 shirt," said Jim Telfer, the Scottish coach. "He can beat a man in a one-on-one situation; he can probably do that better than Jamie, actually."

Jamie is more capable of breaking tackles, of running through people. Still, we can play in a variety of styles and we feel Gregor gives us a good many options in his current position."

The New Zealand-born Leslie brothers, John and Martin, make their Five Nations debuts at inside centre and open-side flanker respectively. Gary Armstrong leads the side from scrum-half in the absence of the injured Bryan Redpath and Tom Smith, a central figure in Scottish plans, is fit to anchor the scrum at loose-head prop.

SCOTLAND (v Wales, Five Nations' Championship, Murrayfield, tomorrow): G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians); C Murray (Edinburgh Reivers), G Townsend (Brive), J Leslie (Glasgow Caledonians), K Logan (Wasps); D Hodge (Edinburgh Reivers), G Armstrong (Newcastle Falcons, capt); T Smith (Glasgow Caledonians), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Murray (Bedford), D Weir (Newcastle Falcons), P Walton (Newcastle Falcons), E Peters (Bath), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers). Replacements: S Longstaff (Glasgow Caledonians), A Tait (Edinburgh Reivers), I Fairley (Edinburgh Reivers), B Pountney (Northampton), S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonians), D Hilton (Bath), S Brotherstone (Edinburgh Reivers).