Ireland eye historic Grand Slam triumph
March 19, 2009
Who will get their hands on the Six Nations silverware - Wales' Ryan Jones or Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll? © Getty Images
Ireland take on Wales in Cardiff this weekend knowing that they are just 80 minutes from immortality.
Declan Kidney's side are just one victory away from only their second Grand Slam and the end of a 61-year drought since their first clean sweep in 1948. There has been Championship success, in 1985, and the Triple Crown has been secured three times in the last five years but make no doubt this is the one that counts.
Standing in their way are Wales, the defending champions, who themselves are within reach of their 20th Triple Crown and more importantly the Championship. They need to beat their visitors by 13 points to spoil the party - something they have not achieved against Ireland for 26 years. A victory by anything less will hand the title to their rivals from across the Irish Sea.
The match could want for no better platform than the magnificent arena that is the Millennium Stadium. A capacity crowd is assured, as is an electric atmosphere, but that will hold no fear for Ireland having been victorious there three times since the birth of the Six Nations at the start of the century.
Irish fans have also left their mark in the Welsh capital, most notably during Munster's march to European dominance and they will happily tread that path again in their thousands on Saturday.
When the schedule was announced this fixture loomed large as a potential title-decider although few would have predicted Ireland reaching this point with history in their grasp. The fact is that they are the form side having set the bar with a dazzling display in the Croke Park victory over France. They may have failed to hit those heights with subsequent victories over Italy, England and Scotland but his side have answered each challenge in the best possible way - with a win.
Wales looked on course for a winner-takes-all clash with commanding victories over Scotland and then England before France de-railed their own tilt at historic back-to-back Grand Slams. Gatland responded to that defeat by almost hitting the self-destruct button with a questionable under-strength selection against Italy in Rome. His decision to rest many of his front line stars resulted in a narrow victory and reportedly caused unrest amongst some of his key players who are likely to offer their answer on the field.
A disjointed Wales lost their spark last time out and laboured to victory and were squabbling among themselves come the final whistle with a heated exchange between Gavin Henson and Ryan Jones hitting the headlines.
Unsurprisingly Gatland has restored several of those he left out last week - skipper Ryan Jones, lock Ian Gough, openside Martyn Williams, props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, hooker Matthew Rees, fly-half Stephen Jones and centre Tom Shanklin - fresh and formidable legs all.
Whether they can find their form and their feet from the opening whistle remains to be seen but their return should see a more structured display from the hosts with Jones directing play and a proven pack providing a secure base. The centres were starved of ball against Italy but you can expect Henson and Shanklin to feature strongly this time.
Kidney too has opted to tweak his line-up for the clash but remains faithful to the core that has taken them to the brink of greatness. Hooker Jerry Flannery, scrum-half Tomas O'Leary and No.8 Jamie Heaslip all return to the starting line-up. No.9 Peter Stringer can consider himself unlucky to have been dropped to the bench having produced a man of the match performance against Scotland including the incisive break that set up the only try of the game.
If one man is going to get Ireland over the line in their quest for glory it is skipper Brian O'Driscoll. The Leinster centre has been back to his best form in this year's Championship, just in time for the forthcoming Lions tour, and will be key to his side's performance on Saturday as when he fires, Ireland normally do too.
Once again the Munster element will provide the bedrock to the Irish challenge with eight men from the province in the starting XV. The power and influence of the tight five, including the towering Paul O'Connell, makes for a mouth-watering clash up front where this game is likely to be won.
Fly-half Ronan O'Gara has long been a thorn in the side of Wales, perhaps most memorably slotting a dramatic drop goal to steal victory at the Millennium Stadium in 2003. Such coolness under pressure will be the order of the day and having come through his latest crisis of confidence the Munster No.10 is sure to figure strongly.
Another intriguing element to the clash is Gatland's history with Ireland whom he coached between 1998 and 2001 before an acrimonious split. He has taken revenge since but this weekend's clash offers another chance to hammer home his feelings.
With the individual match-ups serving as a high-profile trial for the British & Irish Lions this clash takes on even greater significance. A feast for the eyes is assured and the stage is set for a classic but time will tell whether the pressure takes its toll on the quality of rugby.
Ireland arguably deserve their day in the sun but Wales look well-placed to spoil the party. However, Ireland are likely to take solace from their first Championship title for 24 years.
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Powell (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues) L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), D Jones (Scarlets), W Fury (London Irish), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues)
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), G D'Arcy (Leinster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: R Best (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), D Leamy (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster), G Murphy (Leicester)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Touch judges: David Pearson (England), Stuart Terheege (England)