Warren Gatland had a simple note in front of him at the Wales team hotel on Tuesday. It said: “Praise Ireland.”
It is six years now since the Wales coach was quoted as saying words to the effect that the Welsh players disliked the Irish the most. The former Ireland coach has always been adamant his remarks were taken out of context and, speaking ahead of a Saturday showdown in Cardiff that might well decide the championship, he was careful choosing his words.
“There are no hard feelings or bad blood between the two teams, just a strong rivalry when you know each other so well and play each other so often,” said Gatland. “It is like playing against your brother in the backyard – you want to beat him as often as you can.”
At present, Ireland are very much the big brother: Wales have beaten Ireland in Cardiff just twice in the last 23 years. In addition, Ireland have won their last 10 games.
But Gatland, who named the XV which won in France 11 days ago, is looking to more recent history for fresh inspiration, namely last weekend, when all four Welsh regions beat their Irish counterparts in the Pro12 for the first time since 2010. “It is a big boost for the players,” he said. “They came in this week with a spring in their step. Some have been used to being regularly dominated by the Irish provinces so in terms of an international, the motivation is there.”
The main obstacles are the Irish kicking threat and Ireland’s defence, which is conceding on average just eight points a game in this Six Nations. But Gatland is confident that his side have the wherewithal to deal with it all. “One of the things we are good at is competing for the ball,” he added.
History will also be made on Saturday: Ireland’s Paul O’Connell wins his 100th cap and Sam Warburton leads Wales for a record 34th time.
Wales (to play Ireland): L Halfpenny (Toulon); G North (Northampton), J Davies (Clermont Auvergne), J Roberts (Racing Metro), L Williams (Scarlets); D Biggar (Ospreys), R Webb (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), S Baldwin (Ospreys), S Lee (Scarlets), L Charteris (Racing Metro), A W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff, capt), T Faletau (Newport Gwent). Replacements: R Hibbard (Gloucester), R Evans (Scarlets), A Jarvis (Ospreys), J Ball (Scarlets), J Tipuric (Ospreys), M Phillips (Racing Metro), R Priestland (Scarlets), S Williams (Scarlets).
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