Ireland, perennial masters of the unpredictable

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The Independent Online

I assume that Saturday's match between Wales and Ireland is still on, though the world is in such a state of lunacy these days that you never know. If we were chugging along normally and if, in addition, Ireland had beaten Scotland at Murrayfield we would be looking forward to the Cardiff fixture with a fair degree of excitement. Ireland would be in contention for their first Grand Slam since 1948. As it is, we can only hope that the game proves interesting.

I assume that Saturday's match between Wales and Ireland is still on, though the world is in such a state of lunacy these days that you never know. If we were chugging along normally and if, in addition, Ireland had beaten Scotland at Murrayfield we would be looking forward to the Cardiff fixture with a fair degree of excitement. Ireland would be in contention for their first Grand Slam since 1948. As it is, we can only hope that the game proves interesting.

Ireland have long been the most perplexing team in the championship, well before it consisted of six nations. They would either fall at the first jump or, when they had previously been going well, they would for no apparent reason collapse half-way through the race.

It is a matter of choice whether we regard the loss to Scotland as a fall at the first jump or a collapse later on; for the Six Nations competition has been split by the foot-and-mouth outbreak. What was clear was that neither the side collectively nor their leading performers such as Malcolm O'Kelly, Jeremy Davidson (now a scapegoat), Brian O'Driscoll and above all, Keith Wood were performing to anything like their true ability.

One commentator on the Harlequins v Munster match, where Wood was playing for the Quins, confidently predicted that, come this Saturday, he would be "raring to go''. On last Saturday's evidence, I am not so sure about that.

Certainly he was livelier at The Stoop than he had been at Murrayfield. But he was not the Keith Wood of old. If, on the one hand, he keeps up his progress he may be returned to something like this form. On the other hand, he may simply be the victim of too much rugby over the last five years or so.

This cannot be said of David Humphreys, who looks as if he will be chosen before Ronan O'Gara at outside half, with O'Gara on the bench. O'Gara deservedly won the Man of the Match award at The Stoop (though I would have given it to David Wallace myself). But Humphreys deserves his chance after what he has done for Ulster in the Heineken Cup. Ireland have not possessed such a luxury of choice since Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward were around at the same time.

Wales are not in such a fortunate position. Neil Jenkins, who is injured and is, moreover, at odds with the national coach, Graham Henry, may force the rugby followers of my native land to realise how lucky they have been to have him around for the last decade. Often it was Jenkins' boot alone that stood between a respectable loss and a national disgrace.

But I am sorry that Arwel Thomas now seems to be out of contention, with Wales and Swansea alike. I am equally – possibly more – sorry that until now Shane Williams has not formed any considerable part of Henry's plans.

Both players share several characteristics. They are both small, by the standards of modern rugby, indeed, tiny; capable of turning a match on their own, as O'Driscoll, Gregor Townsend and Austin Healey can; and natives of a small patch of west Wales that, recently, has produced such players as Gareth Edwards and Robert Jones, whose autobiography with Huw Richards, Raising the Dragon (Virgin Books, £17.99), I take this opportunity of recommending.

In Wales the feelings about Henry had changed for the worse even before the Lions tour had got under way. Certainly the tour should not be described as "a disaster'', as it now commonly [sometimes] is. The series could have been won if, in the second Test, Jonny Wilkinson had refrained from throwing a crazy pass inside his own 22 from which Joe Roff scored. The Test team performed always creditably, sometimes magnificently. Despite the 2-1 loss of the series, it seems to have been a more successful tour on the field than off it.

But, as I say, the feelings against Henry existed beforehand. The chief grievance appears to be that he will return to New Zealand a much richer man than he left it – and that the Welsh team have not benefited in proportion.

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