Gatland says Wales can put Ireland on back foot

Withdrawal of Earls puts bitter Celtic rivalry in perspective

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The Independent Online

Ireland lost a second Lions centre yesterday, while Wales felt like they had gained one. Whatever influence the late withdrawal of Keith Earls will have on tomorrow's Dublin dust-up, however, nobody will derive any pleasure from his absence.

While Jamie Roberts was declared fit for Wales, it was announced that Earls will remain in his hometown of Limerick with his partner, Edel McGee, and their first child. Ella-Maye was born last week, only for complications to arise with her health. She has been readmitted to hospital, although the nature of her illness remains unclear.

The news will inevitably lend some perspective to a confrontation which has been billed with the obligatory "revenge" tag. If Ireland's defeat by Wales in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final hurt, their Six Nations loss last year in Cardiff was wrapped in bitterness. Matthew Rees took a quick throw-in with the wrong ball, Mike Phillips scored and the try cost Ireland the Triple Crown. Cue accusation and enmity.

It has always been thus between these two, whose familiarity in Celtic league competition only adds to any contempt. There is always a talking point, a controversy to overshadow the contest. Except in Wellington in the first week of October. Then, there were no excuses as Wales simply outplayed and out-thought their rivals and a 22-10 scoreline was the very least their dominance deserved. Yesterday, as he finally named his Wales team, Warren Gatland provided his usual frank analysis of Ireland's inadequacy that day.

"It was one of those days as a coaching team when you do get things right; we planned well," said the Kiwi. "Maybe Ireland, after beating Australia, were thinking further than the quarter- finals and didn't study us in so much depth. The big thing was to negate the running threat of their loose forwards, which is so big to their game. To be honest, we don't expect them to do much different, tactically."

Gatland's message was clear: stop the Irish back row, stop Ireland. True, Gatland did acknowledge that with Jonny Sexton chosen over RonanO'Gara at fly-half, Ireland "will try to play more expansively". But with first Brian O'Driscoll missing in their midfield and now Earls he will not be overly concerned in that regard. Fergus McFadden, Earls's replacement, is a fine prospect but he has started only one Test at centre and is up against Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

Along with the fly-half Rhys Priestland, Roberts was given the green light by the Welsh medics. "It was touch and go," said Roberts, who has not played since 23 December. "But I've been doing contact work this week and I'm ready to go. There will be two mouthwatering back-lines going against each other at the Aviva."

He and Davies were dynamic in that quarter-final, but then as, Roberts said, so were all of the team.

"It was a near- perfect performance," he said. "But we not only have to emulate that performance, we have to better it. We now have to produce the perfect performance as nothing less will do. Ireland away first up is one of the toughest challenges in the Six Nations. The winners may well go on a snowball, while the losers will have all the pressure on them to win the next game."

Roberts recognises the importance of the result, just as he will realise which battle will be key. Priestland's recovery from a knee injury will have given the travelling Welsh support much confidence but the absence of Dan Lydiate will have pricked the bubble. The Dragons blindside almost made it, but his ankle is a few training sessions shy so Ryan Jones will take the No 6 shirt. In the attempt to put the brakes on Jamie Heaslip and Co, the former captain will have a big role to play.

Said Gatland: "Ryan's challenge is to fit in with the combination of Toby [Faletau, the No 8] and Sam [Warburton, the openside and captain] and be a part of a trio which did so well in the World Cup."

If Jones is successful in integrating himself, this could be the ideal way for Wales to launch a bid for a third Grand Slam in eight seasons. This is Gatland's 50th game in charge, and with his recently discovered emphasis on youth he is willing to put his faith in players who were still in school when he took over in 2008.

One of these is Alex Cuthbert, the 21-year-old Cardiff Blues wing who will, with his size 12s, try to fill the small but immense boots of the retired Shane Williams. Rhys Gill, the loosehead prop, finally gets his first start after a circuitous route via Saracens, where he has impressed this season. With experience and multi-talented campaigners on the bench, such as James Hook, Welsh competition for places is high despite their array of injuries. Ireland, without the driving energy of O'Driscoll, are in danger of being reminded exactly how high tomorrow.