Bold Wales vow to keep minds on job in hand

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The Independent Online

Dick Best, a coach who knows what it is to operate at the most exalted levels of his chosen sport, managed to infuriate 99.5 per cent of the Welsh nation yesterday by refusing to pay homage to the Red Dragonhood as they approached this weekend's Grand Slam match with Ireland at the Millennium Stadium.

Having dedicated much of his life to those twin pillars of England's rugby establishment - Harlequins RFC and the England team itself - the man who gloried in the nickname "Sulphuric" would not have been the most popular figure on the far side of the Severn even had he kept his opinions to himself. By unbuttoning his lip in public, he caused more fuss and bother than Dylan Thomas at a free bar.

Best, who helped coach the last British and Irish Lions team to tour New Zealand in 1993, suggested that the Six Nations leaders' renaissance might not be all it has been cracked up to be and warned that a heavy Welsh presence among the 2005 Lions tourists in All Black country would be counter-productive. Needless to say, he was not flavour of the month among the natives, who were fast out of the blocks with their condemnation. But interestingly, the 0.5 per cent of the population who declined to get carried away included the players and management who will do battle with the Irish on Saturday.

"We don't need this sort of thing as motivation," said Mike Ruddock, the head coach, dismissively. "It's old stuff. All the pundits gave their views on the shape of the Lions team before this tournament started, and very few Welshmen got a mention. Those articles have been up on the door of our training barn for the last few weeks. Look, the Lions selection is down to Clive Woodward and no one else. And anyway, all talk of the summer tour comes after the Ireland game."

Ruddock would not even discuss the glittering prizes on offer this weekend, let alone those on offer in New Zealand; getting him to say the words "grand" and "slam" in close proximity was like drawing teeth. It was not difficult to understand his logic. The Welsh, liberated by the success of their fitness regime, have played with extraordinary freedom since beating England in a tight opening match last month, and their coach does not want to see his players suddenly confined in a straitjacket of expectation.

"We are altering nothing," he said, after confirming that Rhys Williams, the Cardiff Blues wing, and Mefin Davies, the Gloucester hooker, would be fit to take their places in a starting formation unchanged from the one that thrashed Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend.

"We are sticking with what has worked so well for us. We are entirely focused on the task in hand and we will stay with our game plan, which is to be as bold and expressive as we have been throughout the championship. This is about putting the hype and talk to one side and doing the things we've done all the way through. Above all, it's about getting a result."

If Ruddock needed his newly-appointed captain, Michael Owen, to sing from the same hymnsheet - and few people on earth sing from hymnsheets with more collective enthusiasm than the Welsh - he was granted his wish. The Newport-Gwent Dragons No 8, handed the leadership role after the influential Gareth Thomas picked up a nasty thumb injury during last month's victory in France, could not have sounded more single-minded had he tried.

"I'm sorry if I'm not very polished in this sort of environment," he said, "but to be honest, the most important part of my role is done out on the field." In other words: "Stop asking me daft questions and let me get on with my proper job."

Ireland, who were chasing a Grand Slam of their own until the French put paid to the notion with a superb display at Lansdowne Road last Saturday, will travel to Cardiff armed with their first-choice scrum-half, Peter Stringer of Munster, who passed a fitness test yesterday.