Welsh have the hunger to serve up Grand finale

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The Independent Online

The Welsh are not the most optimistic rugby nation on earth - with good reason, given the torrents of points the Red Dragonhood have leaked to the All Blacks, the Springboks, the Wallabies and those white-shirted swine from the far side of the Severn over the last couple of decades - but today, with a Grand Slam in clear view, there is both a belief and an expectation that all bad things must come to an end. If Mike Ruddock's excellent team beat Ireland at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon, they will ascend, unbeaten, to the top of the European game for the first time in 27 long and mostly bitter years.

The Welsh are not the most optimistic rugby nation on earth - with good reason, given the torrents of points the Red Dragonhood have leaked to the All Blacks, the Springboks, the Wallabies and those white-shirted swine from the far side of the Severn over the last couple of decades - but today, with a Grand Slam in clear view, there is both a belief and an expectation that all bad things must come to an end. If Mike Ruddock's excellent team beat Ireland at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon, they will ascend, unbeaten, to the top of the European game for the first time in 27 long and mostly bitter years.

At first glance, this should be well within the compass of a side who have rediscovered the best of themselves and their rugby tradition in the 12 months since Ruddock succeeded Steve Hansen as head coach. Ireland, whose craving for a first Slam since 1948 made the Welsh appear impatient, saw their hopes and dreams evaporate in the face of a spellbinding French onslaught last weekend, and are still feeling sick to the pits of their stomachs. Whatever they were saying to the contrary yesterday, they cannot be in the finest of emotional fettle.

Yet if the momentum of the here and now is fully behind Wales, the weight of history is against them. For some mystifying reason known only to the fickle gods who preside over this most demanding of team games, the championship leaders have not beaten Ireland in Cardiff since 1983, when Mark Wyatt, Terry Holmes and Elgan Rees scored tries and David Pickering, now chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, was one of the muddied oafs in the back row. It is one of the most striking sagas of unmitigated failure in rugby - maybe in the whole of sport - and the home side will feel the burden of it today.

And of course, Ireland have Brian O'Driscoll among their number. "You're lucky if a player like him comes along once every 10 years," said Scott Johnson, the Australian who has played such a positive role - part skills coach, part Dr Feelgood - in the Welsh revival as second-in-command to both Hansen and Ruddock. "O'Driscoll is absolutely top drawer, the kind of bloke who makes a really good side into a great one." And this from the man who spends 99 per cent of his time telling his own charges how good they are.

If O'Driscoll took last weekend's defeat on the chin, it did not mean he took it well. The clear favourite to lead this summer's British and Irish Lions in New Zealand had, from the very start of the tournament, talked about a "now or never" moment for his country, and he has spent the last few days coming to terms with the fact that "now" is no longer an option. But as Johnson pointed out, it is sometimes better for a beaten team to "get back on the horse straight away". Certainly, O'Driscoll was in the saddle yesterday.

"When you step off the plane at Cardiff Airport and see all the cameras on the runway, you realise what this game means to the Welsh people," he said. "If we were under any illusions as to how massive this game is, we're not any more. We'll treat it in the same regard, because if we fail to perform to the standards we've set for ourselves, I don't think we'll win. And we're very much here to win - not because of the championship or the Triple Crown, but first and foremost for the sake of the match itself."

So Ireland are dangerous. They possess players who might have been designed to hurt Wales more than any other nation - Paul O'Connell, the ruthlessly efficient lock from Munster, and Ronan O'Gara, the kicking outside-half who, with his mastery of territorial strategy, is equipped to draw the sting from the home side's running game. But in the end, the greatest danger to the Welsh are the Welsh themselves.

"This game," Johnson said, "is all about standing up for what we stand for. These players have come from a long way behind to get in front, and they haven't done it through luck. You don't pull out the performances we've pulled out, and play with the freedom we've shown, without the right mix of confidence and ability. Now we're here, a game away from the title and a Grand Slam, it's about believing in ourselves and all the work we've put in to reach this point. We know that on its day, our game is good enough. The trick is to ensure this is one of those days."

Over the last weeks, Wales have been all the things England used to be - relaxed, assured, at home in their own collective skin. Their top-of-the-bill acts, from Shane Williams and Stephen Jones in the backs to Gethin Jenkins and Martyn Williams up front, are in London Palladium form, and the chorus line, the Kevin Morgans and Brent Cockbains, are raising their games. They could hardly be in better shape.

But these are unfamiliar waters for Welsh rugby. At least half a dozen Irishmen owe themselves, and Sir Clive Woodward, an eye-catching display ahead of Lions selection, and that gives the visitors a menacing look. If this Red Dragon vintage are to create their own history this afternoon, it is unlikely to be by more than a single score.

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