Gatland needs Irish to rediscover form

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The Independent Online

It was Keith Wood, the nearest thing to a master of the spoken word ever produced by the front row union, who captured the strangeness of the Irish mood on the eve of their penultimate match of the 2001 Six Nations. "We're not paranoid... or are we?" said the chrome-domed captain from Limerick, enigmatically. Those present at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff this afternoon will discover for themselves whether the green-shirted brethren, Grand Slam contenders until they blew up against the Scots three weeks ago, are slowly disappearing round the bend.

Unusually, the Irish banned television crews from their training runs this week. "We heard that the Scots managed to watch some of our sessions before the game at Murrayfield, which fits in with the feeling we had during the match that they knew exactly what we were up to," the coach, Warren Gatland, explained. "Certainly, some of the things that happened up there were pretty uncanny. There's no big deal about this, but we're in a professional game now and we cannot afford to take risks."

Gatland cannot afford another defeat, either – not if he plans to remain in gainful employment. Those who support the former All Black hooker point out that his record stacks up against those of many, if not all, of his predecessors, and it is beyond dispute that Ireland bear more resemblance to an efficient international side now than at any time in recent memory. There again, Gatland presided over a damaging World Cup misfire in 1999, when his team failed to make the last eight. A 50-point thrashing at Twickenham last year also blew a king-sized hole in morale.

Word has it that the old Waikato warrior is under pressure – that defeat today, and another at the hands of the English next weekend, will leave him in P45 territory. To his credit, Gatland showed few signs of self-pity yesterday. "I'm not here to think about myself or my future," he said. "Sure, the Scotland match was a big disappointment. But we've had some good group meetings during the week: the players have been honest with themselves and each other, the management have put up their hands and owned up to a couple of mistakes. We'll rectify it, I'm sure. We can't play any worse here than we played in Edinburgh."

There is good reason to assume a high-scoring encounter this afternoon. Gatland has selected a more attacking back row, featuring Eric Miller and David Wallace on the flanks, and by recalling Peter Stringer at scrum-half, he can rest assured that his back division will receive a more rapid service than that offered by the limited Guy Easterby against Scotland. Shane Horgan, a walking calamity in midfield last month, has returned to his natural habitat of right wing – the outsized Leinsterman's contest with the minuscule Shane Williams should be good for a few laughs – and the presence of Kevin Maggs at centre ensures a direct, no-holds-barred approach in midfield.

At the same time, Graham Henry has given the Welsh a bristling new look by incorporating Williams and Kevin Morgan into his back three. Even though Jamie Robinson, his most exciting selection, is now injured and out of commission, the message remains clear: this is a fresh campaign, bursting with fresh ideas and ambitions. Chris Wyatt is in the pack, as is Geraint Lewis – two natural footballers who like nothing better than to play an all-court game. It will be no surprise if today's scoring exceeds the 52 points accumulated by the same teams in the same city two years ago.

Ireland have not lost in Cardiff since 1983. "It is a bizarre statistic, one for which I have no explanation," said Henry, who will undergo his first serious test as a tactician since he narrowly failed to out-fox the Wallabies last summer. "In terms of reversing that trend, I don't think the Scots did us any favours by beating Ireland the way they did last month. The Irish will be a much better side now, because the Murrayfield experience has left them crying out for this game. They went up there as favourites and they found the expectation a little on the heavy side. That burden has gone, and they will be dangerous as a result."

A Welsh victory would guarantee them second place in the championship – their highest finish since Ieaun Evans lifted the old Five Nations trophy in 1994.

"It wouldn't be half bad, considering we began the tournament on the wrong end of 40-odd English points," said Stephen Jones, the Llanelli stand-off, in midweek. Wales have not been beaten since the red rose army dished out that hiding in February. There is no obvious reason why they should not maintain their progress.