Rugby Union: Wales out to end curse of the Irish

Click to follow
The nation probably expects the Wales team to walk on water after the miracle of Murrayfield a fortnight ago (back in the glorious 70s they would probably have attempted it too), but sensibly their coach, Kevin Bowring, has insisted that his charges' feet remain firmly on the ground as they try for the second leg of the Triple Crown.

There have been no promises of champagne rugby; no guarantees of victory; no dwelling on Ireland's record in Cardiff - they have not lost here since 1983. There is no hype. The Dragons are not breathing fire before the game, they are saving their energy for the match itself.

As well they might. The Irish can never be underestimated as their record shows. During that 14-year period the best Wales have managed at home is a draw, in 1991, when today's Ireland captain, Jim Staples, made his debut. It goes without saying that on that day Staples, having scored a try, then left the field injured, after crashing into a sprinkler on the periphery of the National Stadium's pitch.

Poor Staples has an unenviable record on the injury front: he has just recovered from a broken jaw and in the past has suffered a broken wrist (twice), concussion and various other bumps and bangs. But Wales holds fond memories for him and he acknowledges that the Arms Park has been good to Ireland in the past. "It's a tremendous ground," says Staples, 31, who wins his 24th cap today.

"Most internationals who have played here will tell you it's a very special ground with a great atmosphere and we have managed to put together some decent performances here, but I think tomorrow might be different because the Welsh have their tails up right now after the win in Scotland."

Although the Irish, like Wales, have been hit by late withdrawals one of the replacements, Dennis Hickie - a callow youth of 20 - who will be making his international debut, has caused a flutter of excitement. He is a student at St Mary's College and he is, by all accounts, quick. He was Irish schools sprint champion. The Ireland coach, Brian Ashton, says: "It's nice to know you have a bit of gas outside."

But Hickie, raw and inexperienced, will have to negotiate Wales' recently recruited full-back Neil Jenkins. Remember him? The stand-off who was regarded as the cul de sac of Welsh running rugby. He wears the No 15 shirt for the fifth time today, his 48th cap, and Staples has no doubts of Jenkins's ability.

"We will not be targeting Neil," the Harlequins full-back said. "He is a footballer. I've played against him when he has been at stand-half and in the centre and he's done very well. I'm sure he will do well at fullback; he has all the skills and he is comfortable with the ball, he kicks off either foot, passes off either hand and his timing is good."

Jenkins, the Pontypridd captain, can also kick goals. He lies fifth in the all-time world list of Test goal-kickers with 517 points, and needs just 14 more to overtake fourth-placed Hugo Porta, of Argentina, in a distinguished group headed by Australia's Michael Lynagh (911), Scotland's Gavin Hastings (667) and Grant Fox of New Zealand (645).

But his least known attribute is pace. Hickie could find Jenkins a real handful in attack or defence. "I'll be looking to come into the line when I can," promises Jenkins, who is no slouch in defence either.

"James Small tried to get around me in the South Africa game and he didn't manage it," he added. "It was the same with Joost van der Westhuizen, their scrum-half, and they are two of the fastest guys around. I'm not too worried. I'm a bit deceptive with my pace. I'm certainly not that slow, while perhaps not being electrically quick either."

And he feels that having played 35 times at outside-half he has been well prepared for what to expect this afternoon. "I think having played outside-half has given me an insight into other positions and will help me to anticipate what they are likely to do," Jenkins said.

All of Wales will be anticipating victory and an end to Ireland's run today. Whether Wales can pull it off is another matter - what is certain is that Jenkins will have played a key role if they do.