Irish landlords ready to evict Welsh squatters

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The Independent Online

For some reason the northern hemisphere sporting psyche feels uncomfortable when loaded down with others' expectations of success: like a fish on a hook they wriggle to shake off the tag of favouritism.

For some reason the northern hemisphere sporting psyche feels uncomfortable when loaded down with others' expectations of success: like a fish on a hook they wriggle to shake off the tag of favouritism.

Ireland are no exception. They do not like it, though that might be mere false modesty - a humble cloak for an amateur but something looking silly and irrelevant for a full-time professional whose stated aim is to win.

It is remarkable that Ireland are favourites, given that they have lost six of the last eight meetings at Lansdowne Road between these two sides and that they got off to an appalling start to this year's Six Nations Championship. But then again, some remarkable things have been happening to the Irish this season.

For one thing they have ended a dismal run of 12 matches without a victory over the Scots, home or away, and foranother they have beaten France in Paris for the first time in 28 years. That was their third successive victory.

While Wales might have a superior record in Dublin, they have been rocked by the eligibility scandal, savaged byinjuries and stunned by a slump in form.

No wonder then that the bookies have made Ireland 2-7 to take their winning streak to four Six Nations matches and equal the record of the 1948 Grand Slam side -- the only time the men in green have achieved that particular feat.

"The bookies have got caught up with all the emotion just like everybody else," said the Ireland captain, Keith Wood, yesterday. But he didacknowledge that the fear engendered by being made favourites was to be embraced.

"I think fear is a very good emotion to have. If you don't have it you can drift into the realms of arrogance and cockiness. We have a nervousness bred in us by a long history of under-achievement and I am happy to have that present."

Not even the presence of the brilliant centre Brian O'Driscoll, the superb half-back pairing of Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer, a feisty pack and pacy backs can tempt Wood or his merry band into talking up their chances: they are leaving that to Wales. "That was a marvellous win in Paris," cooed the Wales coach, Graham Henry, "and whereas our win there last year was lucky, Ireland's two weeks ago was not. They deserved to win by more."

Each side is determined to praise the other to the skies. But Ireland have reason. Even if Mark Taylor's place is taken by the veteran Scott Gibbs, Wales' midfield defence has a solid look to it. It will test O'Driscoll and the rest for sure.

The Irish are not the only ones with pace out wide. Shane Williams, on the left wing, hasalready shown a clean pair of heels to opponents during this spring campaign and now he has speedy support at full-back where Cardiff's Rhys Williams has a chance to bring hiscoruscating club displays on to a bigger stage.

As for the pack, the Irish to a man regard the Welsh as having one of the better forward outfits in the championship, from the powerhouse prop and captain, David Young, through the second row of Ian Gough and Andy Moore to the supremely competent Nathan Budgett and Colin Charvis, his colleague on the other flank.

No matter that the latter's original qualification has been called into question. It is now immaterial if his mother was born in England and not Wales as Charvis had believed. He is eligible now on grounds of residence.

Mind you, judging by their record on this ground, Wales could claim squatters' rights at Lansdowne Road (just asIreland could in Cardiff).

Somehow, though, the impression is that the landlords will bring in the bailiffs today. Ireland's victory bandwagon has not rolled to a stop just yet.

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