Barely 50 miles separate Ireland and Wales but supposedly there is an ever-widening gulf between the two countries.
Saturday’s encounter at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin is being billed as the grudge match between two sides who are indelibly linked by their brand of attacking, running rugby. The pre-match build-up is such that this is earmarked as a Six Nations decider.
So it may prove but the fanfare is premature with just one weekend of action under the belt and Ireland and Wales having merely tested themselves against Scotland and Italy, neither of whom are expected to challenge for honours come the business end of the Six Nations.
But Ireland-Wales has a captivating recent history. It is a contest rooted in different pockets across the globe: in Wellington, New Zealand, where Ireland were predicted to sweep Wales asunder at the 2011 World Cup only be outclassed; in Sydney, Australia, from the moment Warren Gatland dared to drop Ireland’s golden boy Brian O’Driscoll from the Lions series decider last year.
In his time with Wales, the Irish have called Gatland everything from an “eejit” to a “menopausal warthog” and the New Zealander, who has had to have a skin thicker than a rhino to survive the Lions stick in particular, knows that 50,000 Irishmen, women and children will be baying for his blood in the stadium today.
O’Driscoll’s hurt comments about removing Gatland from his Christmas card list have been well-versed; likewise Gatland sending him a festive card at the behest of Donncha O’Callaghan, in which he light-heartedly pleaded not to be booed in Dublin.
The reality is that both men have more pressing issues on their minds. Gatland still feels he has an underlying point to prove to his former employers, who sacked him in a bloodless coup in 2001 despite nine wins in 11 matches, to show how far he and Wales have come in the intervening years. For O’Driscoll, it is a last chance to shine in a contest between two nations that rarely disappoints.
The idea of a grudge match, while fun, is something of an exaggeration, the animosity between the players not quite what some would have, in part down to the fact that 20 members of the Lions squad will be in contention today (eight Irishmen, 12 from Wales).
For Gatland, the issue with O’Driscoll is “dead and gone”. He added: “The game is more important than myself and Brian.” O’Driscoll for his part insists: “I don’t have any ill will towards Warren.”
The most experienced player on the field bar O’Driscoll, Gethin Jenkins, has roomed with the centre on Lions tours. He refused to be drawn on the saga, preferring to focus on how he “cut us to shreds last season”, the one blip in a successful title defence. “He knows the game inside out and he’s a great player,” Jenkins said. “Hopefully we’ll get one up on him this year.”
Jenkins, who will earn his 102nd cap, has played in some monumental matches against the Irish. Arguably his highlight is the 2005 charge-down of Ronan O’Gara’s attempted clearance kick and his solo try as Wales won their first Grand Slam for 27 years. But he was also playing when Ireland returned the Grand Slam favour in Cardiff in 2009.
He insists there is no “special edge” to this clash, saying: “Obviously the boys know each other from going on tours and knowing each other inside out from the RaboDirect. I suppose there’s personal pride and wanting to get one up on them. They know they’re one of the big challenges to us for the championship and that’s where you raise your game. We’re hoping we can raise it a bit more from Saturday.”
Jenkins is well aware the result will have a major bearing on Wales’ bid for a first hat-trick in Six Nations history. “It’s a huge game for both sides,” he said. “If you win two out of two in the Six Nations, you know you have a good chance of getting to the top of that table. We know it’s one of the biggest for us.”
Jenkins is one of three changes from the opening game along with returning captain Sam Warburton and lock Andrew Coombs replacing the injured Luke Charteris, while Ireland welcome back their talismanic captain Paul O’Connell. Jenkins was forced to sit out the 23-15 victory over Italy after a maul collapsed on his knee in a European game against Toulon.
In the twilight of the 33-year-old’s career, the injuries have racked up and, as a result, he plays every game well aware the clock is ticking. One of only four Welshmen to earn a century of caps, he said: “You think every game you play is going to be your last. And you can’t beat playing for your country. At the moment, I cherish every moment I get, [I want] to keep going as long as I can. When you get injured, you have time to reflect and sometimes think the worst. You worry about how long the body will last.”
The immediate goal is to stay in one piece for the intensity of 80 minutes in Dublin.