Wales rely on player power to upset Irish

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The Independent Online

It does not take an acupuncturist to spot this weekend's pressure point. The finger can be placed firmly on the pitch at Lansdowne Road where Ireland and Wales meet tomorrow.

Both sides need victory but the greater pressure will be on Wales, who have to prove that the only player power they are concerned with is that which is to be found on the pitch and not off it.

The stand-in captain, Michael Owen, and his men certainly have the coach they wanted. But there are lingering doubts about the part played by senior players and management in the demise of Mike Ruddock and the elevation of his successor Scott Johnson, albeit on a temporary basis.

Anything less than a victory for Wales will almost certainly have ramifications beyond the playing staff. The Welsh Rugby Union's board of directors and various officers will all be praying for the Red Dragons to breathe fire, rather than add to the smoke of recent days.

Victory is certainly not a given. There is pressure on Ireland as well, and they are arguably better placed to manufacture a win than are Wales, who are still reeling from the loss of their captain, Gareth Thomas,who has a damaged neck artery, for the rest of their Six Nations campaign.

The Irish have not covered themselves with glory of late. A grim autumn with defeats against New Zealand and Scotland, and a so-so victory over Romania, has been followed by an indifferent, not to say disappointing, beginning to their Six Nations sortie.

The coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, needs a win, preferably one laced with panache. The bookies reckon he will get one and have made Ireland the odds-on favourites.

For either side to win, though, it will take a massive effort. The Welsh focus may have been shredded by the recent off-field goings-on, but, with everything to prove - not least that they can perform without Ruddock - they will be able to draw on their formidable team spirit and try to blast the Irish off the park.

Once the early fires have burned themselves out and the match cools to a more pragmatic temperature, however, then it will be brains not brawn, street smarts and discipline rather than mere huff and puff, that will be required.

Up front, the Welsh scrummage does give the impression of having the edge, and the fact that Ireland are without their in-form line-out operator, Paul O'Connell, also promises a ray or two of hope. On current form the Wales half-backs, Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel, are considerably superior to their opposite numbers, Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer.

The Ireland back five seethes with speed and power. The centre pairing of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy is not just raw pace and strength, they are a cunning duo ever ready with an off-the-cuff move designed to blow open gaps in the defence.

As for the three other threequarters, Geordan Murphy and Andrew Trimble are out-and-out speed machines, while Shane Horgan, if not exactly a Porsche, does not need too much time to hit top speed and then he is about as easy to stop as one of the bulls of Pamplona.

At least the Welsh can be guaranteed some vocal backing. Some 28 extra flights have been found slots from Cardiff to Dublin, with charter flights booked to carry more than 5,000 fans to Ireland.

Bristol airport was another gathering point for Wales fans yesterday, but hordes of supporters arrived earlier in the week, choosing to fly to Limerick and Cork and stay in the cheaper hotels down south to enjoy a few days of craic before heading north to Dublin for the weekend.

Their expectations are high. Although the days of Wales making Dublin a home from home (Ireland did the same with Cardiff in the same period) have passed, they still have a reasonable record at Lansdowne Road.

Since 1970, Wales have won nine matches in Dublin compared to Ireland's eight, with one draw. Wales' last win on the ground was in 2000 and since then they have suffered a record defeat - in a Sunday match in 2002, when Graham Henry's team was thrashed 54-10. The New Zealander resigned two days later. Perhaps Ruddock knew something no one else did.

Lansdowne Road teams

Ireland

15 G Murphy (Leicester)

14 S Horgan (Leinster)

13 B O'Driscoll (Leinster, c)

12 G D'Arcy (Leinster)

11 A Trimble (Ulster)

10 R O'Gara (Munster)

9 P Stringer (Munster)

1 M Horan (Munster)

2 J Flannery (Munster)

3 J Hayes (Munster)

4 M O'Kelly (Leinster)

5 D O'Callaghan (Munster)

6 S Easterby (Llanelli)

7 D Wallace (Munster)

8 D Leamy (Munster)

Replacements: R Best, S Best (both Ulster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), J O'Connor, E Reddan (both Wasps), D Humphreys (Ulster), G Dempsey (Leinster).

Wales

15 L Byrne (Scarlets)

14 M Jones (Scarlets)

13 H Luscombe (Dragons)

12 M Watkins (Scarlets)

11 D James (Scarlets)

10 S Jones (Clermont Auvergne)

9 D Peel (Scarlets)

1 D Jones (Ospreys)

2 R Thomas (Blues)

3 A R Jones (Ospreys)

4 I Gough (Dragons)

5 R Sidoli (Blues)

6 C Charvis (Newcastle)

7 M Williams (Blues)

8 M Owen (Dragons, capt)

Replacements: M Davies (Gloucester), G Jenkins (Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), G Delve (Bath), M Phillips (Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), B Davies (Scarlets).

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa)

Kick-off: Tomorrow 3pm (BBC1)

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