There is no limit to what Ireland could achieve: Triple Crown, Grand Slam, you name it and the money was on. Victories over Fiji and the United States were the red herrings and the line was also baited with the arrival of new management and a new, New Zealand coaching team. Everybody is still waiting with bated breath.
For today's encounter, which carries the inglorious sub-plot of pass the wooden spoon, the green party has run out of revellers. Ireland are 11-10, Wales 8-11. Favourites to score the first try? The Wales' wings Ieuan Evans and Wayne Proctor. Penality (sic) tries, according to the Power chain of shops, do not count as far as having a punt is concerned.
For some reason in Ireland, everybody precedes a sentence with the word "now", as in "Now, what are we having?" or "Now, that'll be pounds 2.80 for a pint of Guinness...now, that'll be down to inflation."
Now, now is the time for Wales, having stripped the valleys of daffodils yesterday to celebrate St David's Day, to gain a tangible reward for a couple of heartening performances that nevertheless resulted in defeat. They scored two tries against England at Twickenham and could have beaten Scotland in Cardiff. Ireland never looked like beating Scotland in Dublin and need hardly have bothered to take the field against France in Paris, where they conceded seven tries and were rewarded with a penalty try.
Ireland are in a right old pickle and the selectors have made so many changes in such a brief space of time they have almost run out of options. They did not choose wisely for the first match, nor for the second and are now in a position, in rugby terms, of declining to Third World level. Jim Staples, the captain who went off with concussion against France, is replaced by the 22-year-old Orrell full-back Simon Mason (grandparents from Dublin) and the captaincy has been handed to the scrum-half Niall Hogan. Post-Paris, Ireland have made six changes to personnel and another three positional. Yet the player who had a nightmare at Parc des Princes was Hogan. "We discussed Hogan's position at length," Pat Whelan, the manager, said. "Nobody knows more than Niall Hogan that he had a poor game in Paris in terms of his passing, etc."
Hogan, a doctor, has passed his exams and it is the best pass he has made this season. He looked as if he needed an umbilical cord to find his partner David Humphreys in Paris, which was all the more surprising given his form in the World Cup in South Africa last summer. Hogan had an excellent game against Wales in Johannesburg, helping Ireland to reach the quarter-final. Both countries are barely recognisable from that little domestic squabble at Ellis Park. Wales, who were quite diabolical that evening, have also changed their coach and the difference is that the selection of Kevin Bowring has resulted in a change of heart as well as personnel.
Bowring, Wales' sixth coach since 1988 and the first full-time appointment, seems to have pulled off the trick of reawakening Wales to its inheritance. The audacious choice of Arwel Thomas at stand-off has changed the complexion of the team from grey to a full-blooded red. It has not paid off yet, but not for the want of trying and while Ireland are desperately searching for the right blend Wales, for only the fifth time in their history, have had an unchanged team for three games in a row.
"We have been encouraged by the way the team has played," Bowring said. "We are building a new side and despite the losses we are making progress in the type of game we want to play. What we are really trying to do is to get the team playing in the traditional Welsh manner which is the fast, fluid and open game I think we play best."
Murray Kidd, the Ireland coach, seemed to be reading Bowring's mind: "Wales look like a team on the up. Their line-out is as good as any in the game. They are winning a lot of possession. They look sharper than they have for years."
About the only sensible move Ireland made against France was in selecting Humphreys. As it happened, he and Hogan barely made contact and last weekend Ireland would not allow Humphreys to play for his club, insisting instead that the half- backs worked on building a rapport in Dublin. Their partnership had got to be better than it was in France but Ireland seem to have lost not only the script but the prompter. They strung together one marvellous move against Scotland and the hero and try-scorer was Peter Clohessy, and look what happened to him.
IRELAND v WALES
at Lansdowne Road, Dublin
S Mason Orrell 15 J Thomas Llanelli
S Geoghegan Bath 14 I Evans Llanelli
J Bell Ballymena 13 L Davies Neath
M Field Malone 12 N Davies Llanelli
N Woods Blackrock College 11 W Proctor Llanelli
D Humphreys London Irish 10 A Thomas Bristol
N Hogan Terenure College (capt) 9 R Howley Bridgend
N Popplewell Newcastle 1 A Lewis Cardiff
A Clarke Northampton 2 J Humphreys Cardiff (capt)
P Wallace Blackrock College 3 J Davies Neath
G Fulcher Constitution 4 G O Llewellyn Neath
J Davidson Dungannon 5 D Jones Cardiff
D Corkery Constitution 6 E Lewis Cardiff
V Costello St Mary's College 8 H Taylor Cardiff
D McBride Malone 7 G Jones Llanelli
Referee: D Mene (France) Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC Wales & Northern Ireland)Reuse content