Opportunity knocks for Ireland and Wales
October 4, 2011
Ireland's backs came to life in last weekend's impressive victory over Italy in Dunedin © Getty Images
Rory Best Cian Healy James Hook Dan Lydiate Conor Murray Sean O'Brien Brian O'Driscoll Ronan O'Gara Sam Warburton Shane Williams
Familiar foes Ireland and Wales will go head-to-head in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in Wellington on Saturday with a much-prized place in the final four well within each side's grasp.
Ireland's upset win over Australia in the pool stages was almost as warmly received by their Celtic cousins from across the Irish Sea as it was on the Emerald Isle. Their heroics in Auckland last month underlined that they are a force to be reckoned with but the Welsh will be relishing the prospect of taking on one of their Six Nations rivals at this stage of the tournament. For them, there is nothing to fear in the familiar. The same goes for the Irish who, after a disastrous warm-up campaign, have progressed to the knock-out stages as winners of their pool for the first time on the back of four successive wins.
The victory over the Wallabies has done wonders for Ireland's self-belief which, despite their claims to the contrary, was definitely on the wane. Indeed, their restored confidence was very much in evidence in their defeat of the Azzurri, a game in which they withstood everything the desperate Italians threw at them during the opening 40 minutes before sweeping them aside with a clinical second-half display. The re-emergence of Ireland's back-line as a potent force was arguably the most pleasing thing for Ireland boss Declan Kidney.
However, in spite of the fact that the New Zealand press are now becoming increasingly wary of the threat posed by the men in green, the Irish will not be getting ahead of themselves given that in Wales they are going up against a side that has also built up some significant momentum in recent weeks.
It is worth remembering that while Wales' failed their acid test in the pool stages, falling to a Springbok side that appeared there for the taking, they have bounced back from that missed opportunity in fine style by seeing off Samoa, Namibia and Fiji to book their place in the last eight. This is a side that is improving with each passing game and they know it, with fullback Lee Byrne claiming earlier this week that Wales are capable of winning the tournament outright.
That remains to be seen but there can be little doubt that whoever emerges from this clash between two of the form sides in the tournament will do so with renewed faith in their ability to go all the way.
Ireland - Player to Watch: Gordon D'Arcy came into this tournament with little or no form to speak of and he did not exactly set the world alight in the early rounds. However, he looked far more like his old self against the Azzurri last weekend and it is worth noting that his best performance in an Irish short in a long, long time coincided with the Irish back-line clicking for the first time in a long, long time.
Ireland - Team News: Declan Kidney has named an unchanged line-up, though there are lingering fitness doubts over hooker Rory Best, who sprained the AC joint on his right shoulder in last weekend's win over the Italians. Should the Ulsterman be forced to withdraw, Sean Cronin will fill the void.
Wales - Player to Watch: Shane Williams returns following a leg injury and Wales' all-time top try scorer is could be a decisive figure in Saturday's quarter-final showdown. His ability to pop up all over the backline and inject pace and creativity into Wales' attack, makes him a potential match winner.
Wales - Team News: Winger Shane Williams, centre Jonathan Davies, flanker Dan Lydiate and lock Alun Wyn Jones are all recalled to the starting line-up. Scarlets wing George North moves from left to right wing to accommodate Williams while Leigh Halfpenny switches to fullback at the expense of Clermont's Lee Byrne. James Hook must make do with a place on the bench. In the centres Davies returns to partner Jamie Roberts with Scott Williams moving to the bench. Meanwhile Lydiate replaces Ryan Jones in the back-row and Wyn Jones is promoted from the bench.
Key Battle: There are so many fascinating and potentially crucial contests throughout this encounter, including the scrum, lineout and midfield gain line. But the battle of the breakdown will determine which team gains most momentum and continuity in attack as well as which kicker gets the most shots at goal from penalties. Ireland will hope their dynamic back-row can force the opponents on the back foot while Wales will look to the speed to the tackle and snaffling expertise of Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate.
Stats: Only New Zealand have scored more points in the tournament to date than Wales, who notched 180 points to the All Blacks' 240 in the pool stages.
Trivia: Ireland have never before gone beyond the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup.
"Wales are a better side now because before you knew where they would attack, but now they attack other places too. It's going to be a case of everyone defending their own zone."
"The boys are really enjoying being at the tournament and we have got high ambitions. We are confident about our prospects against Ireland."
Prediction: There is so little to choose between the two sides that it will inevitably come down to holds their nerve best in the final quarter. Consequently, we think that Ireland's added experience will see them scrape home.
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