Rugby: The rotten luck of the Irish

By James Corrigan

Wales' Jamie Roberts battles Ireland's Sean O'Brien in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final. Photo / Getty Images
Wales' Jamie Roberts battles Ireland's Sean O'Brien in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final. Photo / Getty Images

Ireland lost a second Lions centre yesterday from the Six Nations, while Wales felt like they had gained one. Whatever influence the late withdrawal of Keith Earls has on tonight's Dublin dust-up, nobody will derive any pleasure from his absence.

While Jamie Roberts was declared fit for Wales, it was announced that Earls will remain in his hometown of Limerick with his partner, Edel McGee, and their first child. Ella-Maye was born last week, only for complications to arise with her health. She has been re-admitted to hospital, although the nature of her illness remains unclear.

The news will inevitably lend some perspective to a confrontation which has been billed with the obligatory "revenge" tag. If Ireland's defeat by Wales in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final hurt, their Six Nations loss last year in Cardiff was wrapped in bitterness.

Matthew Rees took a quick throw-in with the wrong ball, Mike Phillips scored and the try cost Ireland the Triple Crown. Cue accusation and enmity.

It has always been thus between these two, whose familiarity in Celtic league competition only adds to any contempt. There is always a talking point, a controversy to overshadow the contest. Except in Wellington in the first week of October. Then, there were no excuses as Wales outplayed and out-thought their rivals, and a 22-10 scoreline was the very least their dominance deserved. Yesterday, as he finally named his Wales team, coach Warren Gatland provided his usual frank analysis of Ireland's inadequacy that day.

"It was one of those days as a coaching team when you do get things right; we planned well," said the Kiwi. "Maybe Ireland, after beating Australia, were thinking further than the quarter-finals and didn't study us in so much depth. The big thing was to negate the running threat of their loose forwards, which is so big to their game. To be honest, we don't expect them to do much different, tactically."

Gatland's message was clear: stop the Irish back row, stop Ireland. True, Gatland did acknowledge that with Jonny Sexton chosen over Ronan O'Gara at fly-half, Ireland "will try to play more expansively". But with first Brian O'Driscoll missing in their midfield and now Earls he will not be overly concerned in that regard. Fergus McFadden, Earls's replacement, is a fine prospect but he has started only one test at centre and is up against Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

Along with the fly-half Rhys Priestland, Roberts was given the green light by the Welsh medics. "It was touch and go," said Roberts, who has not played since December 23. "But I've been doing contact work this week and I'm ready to go. There will be two mouthwatering back-lines going against each other at the Aviva."

He and Davies were dynamic in that quarter-final, but, as Roberts said, so were all of the team. "It was a near-perfect performance," he said. "But we not only have to emulate that performance, we have to better it. Ireland away first up is one of the toughest challenges in the Six Nations. The winners may well go on a snowball, while the losers will have all the pressure on them to win the next game."

Priestland's recovery from a knee injury will have given the Welsh confidence but the absence of Dan Lydiate will have pricked the bubble. The Dragons blindside almost made it, but his ankle is a few training sessions shy so Ryan Jones will take the No 6 shirt. In the attempt to put the brakes on Jamie Heaslip and co, Jones will have a big role to play.

Said Gatland: "Ryan's challenge is to fit in with the combination of Toby [Faletau, the No 8] and Sam [Warburton, the openside and captain] and be a part of a trio which did so well in the World Cup."

- Independent

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