Samoa to test Irish optimism

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The Independent Online
When it comes to many things, the Irish are eternal optimists, and when it comes to rugby, they have to be. So it is that another season heralds another new dawn. This month last year the defeat of Fiji marked the arrival of a professional overseas coach - the New Zealander Murray Kidd. Tonight's meeting with Western Samoa arguably offers something even more significant: the advent of a professional, overseas Irish rugby team.

Well, not quite. Nevertheless, despite Nick Popplewell's withdrawal yesterday, 13 of the Irish XV that takes to Lansdowne Road this evening are fully contracted, English-based players. The theory goes, and it is a sound one, that of all the major rugby nations, Ireland have the most to gain with the onset of the professional era.

Whereas the rest have, in reality, made the jump from semi-professional to professional, the Irish have made a greater leap from amateur to professional. Come the Five Nations and, for once, Ireland should be competing on a level playing field. By the same criteria, the Lansdowne Road faithful may be considerably more demanding this season.

Perhaps that in part contributes to the discernible sense of angst prior to this game. Ireland should win with a reasonable amount to spare, but with the Wallabies looming in 11 days' time the Irish Big Five have selected strangely ambivalent teams for this encounter and the preceding A fixture in Donnybrook against the Junior Springboks.

In several cases, loyalty and reputation have have superceded current form. While Kidd and Co retain an understandable concern about Keith Wood's throwing, the inspirational and rejuvenated Harlequins' hooker is consigned to a place in the A front row despite being heralded as the best hooker in the Courage First Division by Dick Best and others.

There are also questionmarks concerning Simon Mason's defence and input into the line from full-back; Richie Wallace's defence; a midfield combination of Jonathan Bell and new cap Rob Henderson and another experiment, despite previous failures, with out-of-position Paddy Johns at No 8.

Granted, the Samoans are no world-beaters. Defeated by Saracens in their tour opener, they have since accounted for Oxford and Munster. The team includes four debutants, including the 19-times capped All Black turned rugby league winger, Va'aiga Tuigamala, now on a short-term contract with Wasps. He is liable to give Wallace a severe test even if, as Kidd pointed out yesterday, the Wasps winger is more of a creator nowadays than a finisher.

IRELAND (v Western Samoa, Lansdowne Road, tonight): S Mason (Richmond); R Wallace (Saracens), R Henderson (London Irish), J Bell (Northampton), J Topping (Ballymena); D Humphreys (London Irish), N Hogan (Oxford University, capt); H Hurley (Moseley), A Clarke (Northampton), P Wallace (Saracens), G Fulcher (London Irish), J Davidson (London Irish), D Corkery (Bristol), D McBride (Malone), P Johns (Saracens). Replacements: M Field (Malone), P Burke (Bristol), S McIver (Garyowen), M Galwey (Shannon), G Halpin (London Irish), M McDermott (Lansdowne).

WESTERN SAMOA: V Patu; O So'oala, T Vaega, G Leaupepe, V Tuigamala; E Va'a, J Filemu; B Reidy, T Leiasamaivao, A Le'uu, P Leavasa, M Birtwistle, S Ta'ala, I Feaunati, P Lam (capt). Replacements: M Fatialofa, T Fanolua or P Fili, V Vatalo, J Paramore, L Tone, G Latu or R Aale.