Wales and Ireland vie for top billing
March 10, 2011
Ronan O'Gara has undone Wales before, notably in 2009 © Getty Images
Wales throw open the doors of the Millennium Stadium to Ireland on Saturday in what could be a classic Six Nations encounter.
With the tournament now bubbling nicely, this compelling tie pits two well-matched sides against each other with a helpful smattering of past animosity, Rugby World Cup jockeying and wrongs to be righted thrown in for good measure.
Ireland have lost in Cardiff only once since 1983 - when Wales won the Grand Slam in 2005 - and two years ago completed their long wait for a clean sweep thanks to a thrilling 17-15 win at the Millennium Stadium.
Both teams have failed to hit top form during this tournament but remain poised behind leaders England, with Ireland in particular threatening a big performance only for handling errors and over-exuberance at the breakdown to stop them in their tracks.
Wales, meanwhile, are two from two for the first time in a long while and will fancy their chances after showing plenty of grit and determination in victories over Scotland and Italy. If they come out firing then Ireland's pursuit of yet another Triple Crown could fall flat at the second hurdle.
Wales - Player to Watch: With Adam Jones back playing for the Ospreys, a great deal of faith has been shown in tight-head Craig Mitchell by the Wales management. The Ospreys prop, soon to leave the region, will be eyeing up Irish loose-head Cian Healy and a couple of big performances before the end of March could see him installed as a priceless squad member just months from the start of the Rugby World Cup.
Wales - Team News: Jonathan Davies returns from injury to start at inside-centre, allowing James Hook to switch back to fly-half. On the wing, Leigh Halfpenny is given the nod ahead of Morgan Stoddart given his 60 metre kicking range and Ireland's recent disciplinary issues.
Ireland - Player to Watch Eoin Reddan has kept Tomas O'Leary waiting in the wings and the Leinster scrum-half will not want to pass up the opportunity of staking a claim for the shirt on a permanent basis. He may lack the physical presence of his rival but he will hope to get the upper hand on Mike Phillips in terms of service and pace around the fringes.
Ireland - Team News: It's as you were for the visitors, who have kept faith in the steady hand of Ronan O'Gara at fly-half. The Munster playmaker has further experience outside him in Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll while flanker David Wallace will win his 70th cap for Ireland.
Key Battle: Poise versus flair, O'Gara versus Hook. The fly-halves will undoubtedly have a huge bearing on this one, with Hook hoping to spark a backline into life and secure the prized No.10 jersey for himself and O'Gara keen to prove that he's the man to direct proceedings for Ireland at the World Cup.
Trivia: There are nine survivors from Ireland's last visit to the Millennium Stadium in the starting line-up, while Wales have six.
Stats: O'Gara heads into this one just two points short of 1,000 in Test rugby. Should he reach the mark he will join Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, Neil Jenkins and Diego Dominguez in a select club.
"It's a vote of confidence in someone like Craig Mitchell and the job he has been doing. I don't think he has had enough credit for his work-rate around the field. He's been absolutely outstanding in terms of the number of rucks he has hit and the tackles he's made." - Wales coach Warren Gatland praises his tight-head.
"The negativity filters down from punditry to people reading papers and the general public. There's a percentage of people who have a very good understanding of the game. Then there's a large portion of people who know what's going on in the game but rely on what's said to base their opinions around. The negativity comes from the regurgitation of those opinions." - Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll hits back at their critics.
The Odds: Fancy Ireland to make lightning strike twice? bet365 have the visitors at 5/1 to win by one to five points.
Fantasy: Two players in this game are in the hunt for the all-time Championship scoring record - are Shane Williams and Brian O'Driscoll in your team for the ESPNscrum International Fantasy Rugby Game
Prediction: Rarely do Test matches pit such even sides against each other. Home advantage to finally sway this one the way of Wales by the odd few points.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview
With the retirement of Adam Jones, Welsh rugby says goodbye to a great player and one of its biggest personalities too, writes Tom Hamilton
Cards, kicks, slips and scores: It's The Week in Pictures, the finest snaps from the last seven days of rugby