O'Driscoll aims to turn valleys emerald again
Saturday 12 March 2011
Perhaps it doesn't have as much riding on the result as the last time Wales hosted Ireland, but the memories of that Grand Slam humdinger two years ago should not demean the importance of this evening's Six Nations match at the Millennium Stadium.
One team will go forward to the title-deciding weekend with their reputation restored, the other will go back to their own media ready to have theirs dismantled.
Both nations have two wins from three, but both have failed to convince in their stated belief the Championship is still theirs to win. The form of England plus the respective points differences are just two reasons for the scepticism. As Robin McBryde, the Wales forwards coach, put it yesterday: "It's fair to say both teams are struggling to find their top form and play to the best of their ability."
So who will step up? The record sheet says it's a no contest, with the green army having lost just once in the Welsh capital in the past 28 years. As statistics go, that must rank as one of the more remarkable, particularly as the Dragonhood have won four Championships to Ireland's two in this time.
Warren Gatland, the home coach, manfully tried to pooh-pooh the burden of history, saying past results will be "irrelevant" when the ball goes up into that Cardiff sky. Maybe, but it surely cannot be denied that these visitors have positive vibes when it comes to the venue. Said their captain, Brian O'Driscoll: "A lot of guys who have played here before have good memories. The Munster boys have won two Heineken Cups here and we have a Slam to remember from the last time we were there. It holds no fear."
Yes, the hillsides have been rather too welcoming, but there is reason to expect the huge Irish ball-carriers will face a hostile defensive assault. Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach, has all but promised it. The fact the Irish have insisted the roof remain open has suggested a limited game plan to their opponents. Conversely, with James Hook favoured to the more conservative Stephen Jones at fly-half, Wales feel they have signified their creative intentions.
Whether it works out either way depends largely on the whistle. Again the sides are similar in emphasising the importance of discipline. Wales know Ronan O'Gara – who needs four points to become just the fifth player to score 1,000 points in international rugby – will make them pay; the Irish are aware that Leigh Halfpenny has the ability to snatch the tee from Hook and convert from anywhere. As the mutual concerns suggest, this is probably where it will be won and lost.
Wales are the misfits of this Championship, conceding an average of 13 penalties per game and racking up three yellow cards (two more than any other team). Dan Lydiate, the impressive back-rower, explained the challenge. "You have to be street-legal – we can't have men off the field," he said. "The statistics are plain to see – we can't shy away from how many penalties we've given away."
With that in mind, Wales have been in contact with the referee, Jonathan Kaplan. Not just to ensure they are on the same page as the South African when it comes to breakdown, but maybe also to ensure he is on the same page as Nigel Owens, the Welsh referee who awarded Scotland 13 penalties against the Irish two weeks ago.
Coach Declan Kidney was furious at Murrayfield and uncharacteristically vented his frustrations this week. "Everyone knows Declan as a nice man, really calm and composed, but he let fly on Tuesday," said Donncha O'Callaghan. "There's a balance to strike because you don't want to be playing with 15 altar boys."
As it is, there will be only one player out there even daring to resemble an altar boy. Step forward Shane Williams, the veteran wing wizard who will retire after the World Cup and so plays his last competitive international at the Millennium Stadium. Expect a bit of emotion and a lot of sidestepping. Williams and O'Driscoll have their own personal battle. The former is on 22 Six Nations tries and the latter on 23 as they try to chase down Ian Smith's long-standing record of 24. Just another factor on the line.
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