Rugby Union: Irish choose physical approach

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The Independent Online
SO NOW we know: the Irish are taking the route-one, back-to-basics, hellfire and brimstone approach to this weekend's Five Nations set-to with England.

Warren Gatland, their coach, tacitly admitted as much last night when he dropped the pacey, multi-faceted Eric Miller from his back row and chose Victor Costello instead. As a statement of intent, it was deafening. Gatland intends to take the word "vicarage" out of the forthcoming tea party and replace it with the word "Boston".

A shovel-handed 18st 3lb man mountain from Blackrock - he went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as a shot-putter - Costello has many qualities; not every No 8 experiences the pleasure of catching Jeremy Guscott in full flight, as the Leinsterman did at Twickenham last season. But subtlety is hardly one of the more prominent strings attached to the Costello bow. His selection over Miller, whose brilliance made him the youngest of Martin Johnson's 1997 Lions, underlines Gatland's preference for the physical over the artistic.

Miller will be desperately disappointed. Two stones lighter than Costello but infinitely more versatile, he made more yardage during Ireland's fine victory over Wales at Wembley 11 days ago than the average gridiron running back, and covered more acreage than an entire team-full of Costellos could ever dream about.

Still, the emerald die is cast: it will be full-on and damn the consequences on Saturday.

Gatland has made a second, more widely predicted change to his winning side of two weekends ago. Girvan Dempsey, a clubmate of Mill-er's at Terenure College, regains the left wing berth from Nial Woods, who drops down a level and plays in the second-string A international between the two countries at Donnybrook on Saturday night.

Whether the Irish will rue the absence of Woods' goal-kicking skills remains to be seen. They paid the price of his omission against France in the opening match of the championship, so it is a risky strategy.

England were scheduled to confirm their line-up this afternoon and Costello's inclusion may just persuade Clive Woodward, the national coach, to shine his selectorial torch in the direction of the back row.

Martin Corry, a titan for Lei-cester this season, has the right physical equipment to confront the Irish No 8. The most imaginative solution would be to restore the equally powerful Richard Hill to his open-side role, run Lawrence Dallaglio on the blind side and use Neil Back as a 25-minute "impact" player once the game has broken up a little.

Woodward is unlikely to do any such thing. He has been concentrating on the choices at full-back and scrum-half: if he picks on form, he will recall both Matt Perry and Kyran Bracken. Perry is a magnificent defensive full-back - witness his performance against the Spring- boks in Cape Town last summer - while Bracken is the best No 9 in Europe. Given the latter's injury record, Woodward should play him while he can.

John Davies will play for Wales in Saturday's encounter with France in Paris. An arm injury may eject Scotland's captain, Gary Armstrong, from the Italy game at Murrayfield.

Wasps' Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Gloucester has been moved to Sunday, 4 April.

IRELAND (v England, Five Nations' Championship, Lansdowne Road, Saturday, 6 March): C O'Shea (London Irish); J Bishop (London Irish), K Maggs (Bath), J Bell (Dungannon), G Dempsey (Terenure College); D Humphreys (Dungannon), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens, capt), J Davidson (Castres), D O'Cuinneagain (Sale), A Ward (Balynahinch), V Costello (St Mary's College). Replacements: R Henderson (Wasps), E Elwood (Galwegians), C Scally (UCD), E Miller (Terenure College), M Galwey (Shannon), J Fitzpatrick (Dungannon), R Nesdale (Newcastle).

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