The mind-game expert that is Warren Gatland supposedly prefers to roll rather than lob his grenades towards his opponents. But with one unprovoked comment yesterday he unashamedly yanked out the pin and did his finest Rambo impression. "Of all the teams in the Six Nations, the Welsh players dislike the Irish the most," said the Wales coach.
Cue a blast heard all the way from Dunvant to Dun Laoghaire and a fall-out at the Millennium Stadium that will now be even more eagerly anticipated. As if there is not enough riding on the final game of the tournament – a first Grand Slam since 1948 for Ireland, a defence of the Triple Crown and the Championship for Wales – then the Kiwi has introduced a personal edge that is sure to make the proceedings on Saturday evening that bit more tense. "My players' experiences against Ireland haven't always been the greatest, so they are very motivated to play against them," he added.
Last year, before Wales' Triple Crown clincher at Croke Park, Gatland ramped up the ante with Eddie O'Sullivan, the since departed coach who controversially succeeded him in the Ireland hot seat. This time around, with his own score settled, it is plainly the players' "differences" that will provide the incentive. It is no secret the two sets of players do not get along (Gavin Henson and Brian O'Driscoll are about as close as Popeye and Bluto), yet Gatland is nobody's fool and would have realised exactly the bitterness he was digging up.
If there was an underlying tone to his team announcement, it was that of "wind-up". He clearly believes that the entire weight of expectation will fall on Declan Kidney's men; just as he clearly believes it is his duty to remind them it will. "All the pressure will be on Ireland to grab only the second Grand Slam in their history and to come to our backyard and perform," he said.
"After the Scottish game, the Irish players were an hour and a half in the changing room celebrating and singing. So they were clearly happy with where they were at. It's how they handle that pressure now. At international level, when there has been that expectation either to perform in Six Nations tournaments or World Cups, they've faltered. It will be interesting to see how Declan handles that, and how the players handle that.
"If you go back to the autumn, they were talking themselves up a lot before the New Zealand game and really performed poorly. Yeah, they've performed well in this Six Nations, but we're at home with a massive crowd behind us. I don't mind admitting we have left ourselves with a lot to do to win the Championship, but, on the other hand, the 13-point deficit is by no means insurmountable. We know only too well in Wales that Grand Slams don't come cheaply."
Gatland's mischief would not have come as a surprise to his counterpart Kidney and, by and large, neither would his selection. The former All Black consented to shine the spotlight on himself long enough to hold up his hands and admit "maybe I did make too many changes" for the slog against Italy and he has inevitably moved to redress the failings of the Welsh "reserves" in Rome. Andy Powell's inclusion at No 8 might have raised the odd eyebrow after his ineffectual display, but the pack essentially picked itself. Meanwhile, Gatland outlined his sensible policy in behind. "We've gone with the most experienced back line we can put out there," he said.
That means no place for 20-year-old Leigh Halfpenny or for Jamie Roberts – who drops to the bench – and the restoration of the Henson-Tom Shanklin partnership. The pair have yet to lose an international when starting at 12 and 13 and, seeing as they have appeared a dozen times alongside each other, that is another formidable statistic for Ireland to overcome.
For his part, Kidney also went with the expected in his selection, reinstating the No 8 Jamie Heaslip for Denis Leamy, hooker Jerry Flannery for Rory Best and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary for the unfortunate Peter Stringer. Inevitably, as Gatland attempted to raise the hype, Kidney desperately attempted to lower it. Although, he did not manage to sound quite so convincing. "If we are beaten in Cardiff and walk away with nothing, as long as we can look at ourselves and say we gave it our best shot, that won't be such a bad place to be," Kidney said.
* The Ireland trio Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip are among six names shortlisted for the Six Nations Player of the Tournament award. Wales' Lee Byrne, Italy's Sergio Parisse and England's Delon Armitage make up the list selected by a group of former international players. A fans' poll on the tournament website www.rbs6nations.com will decide the winner after the final round of matches.
Celtic conundrum: Teams for Cardiff
15 R Kearney (Leinster)
14 T Bowe (Ospreys)
13 B O'Driscoll (Leinster, c)
12 G D'Arcy (Leinster)
11 L Fitzgerald (Leinster)
10 R O'Gara (Munster)
9 T O'Leary (Munster)
1 M Horan (Munster)
2 J Flannery (Munster)
3 J Hayes (Munster)
4 D O'Callaghan (Munster)
5 P O'Connell (Munster)
6 S Ferris (Ulster)
7 D Wallace (Munster)
8 J Heaslip (Leinster)
Replacements: 16 R Best (Ulster); 17 T Court (Ulster); 18 M O'Driscoll (Munster); 19 D Leamy (Munster); 20 P Stringer (Munster); 21 P Wallace (Ulster); 22 G Murphy (Leicester).
15 L Byrne (Ospreys)
14 M Jones (Scarlets)
13 T Shanklin (Blues)
12 G Henson (Ospreys)
11 S Williams (Ospreys)
10 S Jones (Scarlets)
9 M Phillips (Ospreys)
1 G Jenkins (Blues)
2 M Rees (Scarlets)
3 A Jones (Ospreys)
4 I Gough (Ospreys)
5 A-W Jones (Ospreys)
6 R Jones (Ospreys, capt)
7 M Williams (Blues)
8 A Powell (Blues)
Replacements: 16 H Bennett (Ospreys); 17 J Yapp (Blues); 18 L Charteris (Dragons); 19 D Jones (Scarlets); 20 W Fury (London Irish); 21 J Hook (Ospreys); 22 J Roberts (Blues).
Referee W Barnes (Eng).
Touch judges D Pearson (Eng), S Terheege (Eng). Television match official R Poite (Fr).
Venue Millennium Stadium (5.30). TV BBC 1.
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