Wales to spoil Ireland's party
March 18, 2009
Wales coach Warren Gatland has recalled his big guns for the Championship showdown in Cardiff © Getty Images
Declan Kidney Steve Borthwick Sebastien Chabal Luke Charteris Gordon D'Arcy Warren Gatland Ian Gough Gavin Henson John Jeffrey Gethin Jenkins Mark Jones Marc Lievremont Brian Moore Tom Shanklin John Yapp
Wales and Ireland looked the strongest teams before it all began - it really is hard to believe that was only six weeks ago - and, fittingly, with the lesser matches out of the way the stage will be cleared for the final showdown at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
It should have been a 'winner take all' scenario but Gatland's devaluing of the Italy game means Ireland can still lose and take the Championship - criminal! I have no doubts that Wales would have won by at least 20 points with their best side and then, to all intents and purposes, the two countries would have been level.
At least he has had the good grace to admit he was wrong - 'There were players who definitely needed a rest, like Gethin Jenkins, who had an issue with his neck, but we should have stuck to four or five changes,' he conceded when he announced the team to play Ireland on Tuesday. Make that three at most, Warren!
It cost Wales more than just an inferior points difference - I have had it confirmed that certain players were furious at being left out and the stop, start performance prevented Wales from regaining the momentum lost in that defeat against France.
It was also unfair on the incoming players. John Yapp looked hopelessly out of his depth but he was part of a totally new front-row and had the heavy but gangly Luke Charteris up his back-side instead of the power of Ian Gough. I will guarantee he looks far more comfortable if he gets on this Saturday.
Good as Jamie Roberts can be when he's going forward I believe Gavin Henson and Tom Shanklin are still the best centre combination for Wales and I think Mark Jones's extra experience might be valuable in such a big match so this time round I agree with Gatland entirely. I just hope Wales hit the ground running.
Irish coach, Declan Kidney, has also hurriedly revised his thinking by restoring three of the four players he dropped against Scotland. 'The difference between the players is so small….. I wouldn't try to justify it,' he announced in very Irish fashion. Only Gordon D'Arcy of those brought in retains his place. Again, I believe he knows this is his strongest combination.
Gatland has upped the ante (or is it the anti) by suddenly suggesting there is bad blood between the teams. 'Probably, out of all the teams in the Six Nations, the Welsh dislike the Irish the most,' he said without elaborating.
It is certainly not a general feeling. There is a real bond between the Welsh and Irish people. Perhaps he is speaking more for himself - he was, after all, shafted when he was Irish coach and he is not a man to forgive and forget easily.
England can, of course, still finish second on points difference if they beat Scotland having walloped France. I predicted the win but I will not even try to claim I expected the try avalanche.
Steve Borthwick, the England captain, basking in praise for once instead of recriminations, has also surprised everyone and given the Calcutta Cup match even more edge by suggesting Scotland were disrespectful in the way they celebrated after beating England at Murrayfield last year.
He is usually the epitome of politeness - too nice by far for some - but his - 'they made no disguise of rubbing in the fact they had beaten England….there are certain things I'll keep to myself but I will not forget post that game' - comment indicates that Anglo-Scottish relations are back to where they were when John Jeffrey and Brian Moore used to try to out-insult each other.
England must not let ill-feeling get in the way of pursuing their new found game plan. I still do not believe their selection is right but they are getting closer to their best combination and the first half against France must surely have made them truly believe that attack is the best form of defence. It has taken a long time.
Scotland will summon all their passion because it is England they are up against but unless England go back to their stuttering worst I cannot see it being enough. For all the promise of the Evans brothers they still have too little to offer behind a pack which is workmanlike but cannot dominate to the extent of controlling a game.
'Johnson hails new era' screamed one headline this week. Steady boys it was only one match so I still need convincing but I do think they will see-off Scotland - particularly if they are feeling aggrieved.
You would have thought Marc Lievremont's love affair with Sebastien Chabal was over - he was a disaster as a No.7 - but no, he is back in the second-row against Italy.
That could cause problems against the powerful Italian pack but France will still win because the Italian backs will not be able to take full advantage.
But on Saturday it is really all about what happens in Cardiff and I'll stick with my pre-tournament prediction - no Grand Slam but Wales scraping through to take the 2009 Six Nations Championship. I just hope the game lives up to the occasion.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com
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