Leamy has come a long way from Tipperary

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The Independent Online

He has been bitten on the arm by an angry Tongan, and offered forgiveness over a few pints. He was cited for stamping against Italy last year and castigated by the opponents' coach, but cleared by the judiciary. He confesses to "getting myself in trouble", but says those days are gone. Denis Leamy is one of those ever-watchable men of Munster - part loveable, part larrikin - upon whom so many Irish hopes rest in this Six Nations' Championship.

The Tongan teeth in question were those of Epi Taione when Munster gave Sale the hurry-up in Limerick in the Heineken Cup 13 months ago. "Epi was a substitute and he'd probably been on the sideline getting grief," said Leamy. "By the time he came on he wanted to take his anger out on someone - quite a scary prospect." Taione admitted the offence and served a ban. The pair met again in November when Leamy, after an unbroken run of 14 starts for Ireland, won his 17th cap from the bench against the Pacific Islanders. "We swapped shirts in the dressing room afterwards and had a few beers," he said. "We all know you do things on a rugby field you'd never do anywhere else."

What Ireland have done is finish second or third in each of the seven seasons of the Six Nations, but they yearn for a first title since 1985, and a first Grand Slam since 1948. They might have had both in 2006 but left themselves too much to do in France after a poor start. Leamy wasted three points when he tapped a penalty and ran into trouble.

Against Italy he left the Azzurri coach, Pierre Berbizier, moaning: "Leamy stopped us playing and was offside." For Leamy, it is all about treading the dividing line. "When I was younger [he is only 25] I got a reputation of being over-physical. I think as I've gotten older I've channelled my energies in the right direction."

Eddie O'Sullivan, Ireland's coach, has said that his favoured back row comprises a proven line-out option, a ball-carrying No 8 and a breakdown specialist at No 7. Leamy, who learned his trade at No 8 from the masterful Anthony Foley, combines today with Llanelli Scarlets' Simon Easterby on the blindside and Munster's David Wallace on the open: three all-out marauders, with another, Ulster's Neil Best, on the bench. Wales's half-backs, both of whom are team-mates of Easterby's at Llanelli, may be forgiven the odd Hail Mary. "Simon will have a nice insight into the strengths and weaknesses of certain players," warned Leamy.

This mainstay of Ireland's strongest side in years - they lost narrowly in New Zealand last summer and beat Australia and South Africa in the autumn before trouncing the Islanders - is a son of County Tipperary, which is Gaelic Games territory. He was a wide-eyed seven-year-old when he first set out with his father for the day-long pilgrimage to the cathedral of GAA, Croke Park in Dublin, cheering on "Tip" in the All-Ireland hurling final. "It would be bumper to bumper the whole way up," he said. "I've been to Croke Park 20 times near enough for hurling." He is thrilled at the thought of playing rugby there, but that must wait until next Sunday, when France hit town, and England after that.

For today's game in Cardiff, the pundits have homed in on the Irish scrum as Wales's main source of encouragement. Leamy will be the one in the black scrumcap back-pedalling if the front row are under the gun. "The French last year probably put a bit of pressure on us," he said, though he needed to rack his brains first. "Yes, the scrum is important, and we've worked hard on it in training. There was a 35-minute session the other day, a touch longer than normal. But I don't think we have a complex about it. When you are a successful team the critics try to look for an area of weakness. We know how good the Welsh scrum is and we'll have to be right up for it as an entire eight."

The Welsh, in turn, will know that the Irish have won 11 out of the past 14 meetings. It's a long way from Tipperary to the Grand Slam, but if Leamy has anything to do with it, Ireland will get there.

MILLENNIUM STADIUM LINE-UPS

Wales

15 K Morgan (Newport-Gwent Dragons)

14 H Luscombe (Harlequins)

13 J Robinson (Cardiff Blues)

12 J Hook (Ospreys)

11 C Czekaj (Blues)

10 S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets, capt)

9 D Peel (Scarlets)

1 G Jenkins (Blues)

2 R Thomas (Blues)

3 C Horsman (Worcester)

4 I Gough (Dragons)

5 A Wyn Jones (Ospreys)

6 A Popham (Scarlets)

8 R Jones (Ospreys)

7 M Williams (Blues)

Replacements: 16 M Rees (Scarlets), 17 D Jones (Ospreys), 18 R Sidoli (Blues), 19 G Thomas (Scarlets), 20 C Sweeney (Dragons), 21 M Phillips (Blues), 22 A Brew (Dragons)

Ireland

15 G Dempsey (Leinster)

14 A Trimble (Ulster)

13 B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt)

12 G D'Arcy (Leinster)

11 D Hickie (Leinster)

10 R O'Gara (Munster)

9 P Stringer (Munster)

1 M Horan (Munster)

2 R Best (Ulster)

3 J Hayes (Munster)

4 D O'Callaghan (Munster)

5 P O'Connell (Munster)

6 S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets)

8 D Leamy (Munster)

7 D Wallace (Munster)

Replacements: 16 J Flannery (Munster), 17 S Best (Ulster), 18 M O'Driscoll (Munster), 19 N Best (Ulster), 20 I Boss (Ulster), 21 P Wallace (Ulster), 22 G Murphy (Leicester)

Referee: K Deaker (New Zealand)

Kick-off: 3pm

Live: BBC1

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