If you were neutral you would want to be in Cardiff on Saturday when Ireland come across the sea to play Wales in a match to decide the winner of the Six Nations Championship for 2009.
Rugby 365 reports that if Ireland win can you imagine the rambunctious rejoicing and the craick everywhere? If Wales win, can you imagine the rambunctious rejoicing everywhere? And losing Gaelic cousin will soon be drawn into winning Gaelic cousin’s rejoicing and join in the rumbunctiousness in Cardiff as they pour out of Millennium Stadium and into the welcoming city.
Cardiff will be a great place to be.
But before that, let’s hope that Millennium Stadium will be a great place to be for the rugby played. It has not been a great Six Nations but all will be forgiven if these two sides have a full go at rugby and each other.
Ireland have glory close at hand – a first Grand Slam since 1948. They have been in this position before and stumbled at the last hurdle. Will they do it again? There is great expectation in Ireland, which may be too much for the team, and yet they are mature professionals, not convent schoolgirls heading for their first dance.
Winning the championship should be what Ireland will achieve. It’s hard to see Wales beating this Irish side by 13 points of more, what they need to do to improve on Ireland’s points’ difference. Wales cannot win the Triple Crown or the Grand Slam, but Ireland can. They would like all three – Six Nations Cup, the Triple Crown with its plate and the Grand Slam.
If you weigh up the two sides, things are close. Wales are probably a bit stronger in the front row when it is time to scrum; Ireland are probably better in the line-outs. There is not much to choose between the loose forwards. In the end forward dominance may well depend on who gets most behind the tackle with greatest vigour.
There is little between the halfbacks, Ireland may well have the better centres, there is little between the wings unless they get ball and opportunity and the relative performances of Lee Byrne and Robert Kearney could be excitingly close.
If you look at their performances this year there is, France apart, little to choose. Both had shabby matches against Italy, Wales were perhaps better than Ireland against England, Wales were more convincing against Scotland than Ireland were but Ireland beat France at home while Wales lost to France away from home.
Will home ground play a role? Of course it will but it’s not a long journey from Dublin to Cardiff and the seasoned men have been there before. In Edinburgh last weekend, it sounded as if it were an Irish home match, which suggests that there will be lots of Irish support with Athenry competing with Bread of Heaven in a stadium where noise is magnified.
Head to Head: There are match-ups galore between these sides – hard and organised Paul O’Connell against athletic and determined Alun-Wyn Jones, the forthright David Wallace against the cunning Martyn Williams, Ryan Jones against Stephen Ferris, who are so alike in their virtues, tough Gordon D’Arcy against Gavin Henson who looked shaky even against Italy.
Brian O’Driscoll may have too much speed for competitive Tom Shanklin but the Welshman has had a fine Six Nations. After a great performance last week Peter Stringer sits on the bench while Tomas O’Leary comes back to scrumhalf, presumably because he would better able to cope with rough handling from big Mike Phillips. There is the potential for conflict there.
Though they may never come into direct conflict the performances of the two brilliant fullbacks could well be a feature of the match as they are likely to be weighed in the scale on this performance – Lee Byrne of Wales and Rob Kearney of Wales.
And there are many other battles that will go on in every position.
One competition that could be most significant is that between Ronan O’Gara’s boot and Stephen Jones’s boot. So far this year Jones’s has been much more accurate and the same is true of his back-up James Hook. O’Gara has been erratic but he has so much ability and experience that it would not be a surprise if he got quickly into the groove on Saturday. If Jones kicks better it could well be the winning of the match. Ireland have scored 10 tries, Wales eight. Wales have kicked 13 penalty goals to Ireland’s 10. Ireland have missed seven penalty kicks at goal, Wales three.
Ireland have conceded fewer penalties in the Six Nations and are perhaps less likely to earn debilitating yellow card than Martyn Williams and co.
Players to watch: When the ball is going Shane Williams’s way there is always a frisson of excitement even if he is suffering from the disappointment that often is the lot of the Player of the Year in the season following. Likewise it is always exciting when the ball is travelling towards Brian O’Driscoll who is simply full of class.
Head-to-head: You may well watch the wiles of Martyn Williams and the enthusiasm of Jamie Heaslip. You will see the frowned determination of Paul O’Connell and the placid strength of Ryan Jones. But the most exciting players may be Lee Byrne and Rob Kearney, both so athletic as they leap to take the high ball, both adventurous, both brave.
2008: Wales won 16-12 at Croke Park, Dublin
2007: Ireland won 19-9 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2006: Ireland won 31-5 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin
2005: Wales won 32-20 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2004: Ireland won 36-15 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin
2003: Ireland won 35-12 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin
2003: Ireland won 25-24 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2002: Ireland won 54-10 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin
2001: Ireland won 36-6 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2000: Wales won 23-19 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin
1999: Ireland won 29-23 at Wembley Stadium, London
1998: Wales won 30-21 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin
Prediction: It’s a hard one to predict. The bounce of the ball here, the seen infringement there, the dropped pass here, the poor line kick there. But let’s stick our necks out and say that Ireland will break away from 61 disappointing seasons and win by three points. This will be the day, this the hour, this the power and this glory.
Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Andy Powell, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Ryan Jones (captain), 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins
Replacements: 16 Huw Bennett, 17 John Yapp, 18 Luke Charteris, 19 Dafydd Jones, 20 Warren Fury, 21 James Hook, 22 Jamie Roberts
Ireland: 15 Robert Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll (captain), 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Tomas O’Leary, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Jerry Flannery, 1 Marcus Horan
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Tom Court, 18 Mick O’Driscoll, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Paddy Wallace, 22 Geordan Murphy
Date: Saturday 21 March 2009
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Time: 17.30 (17.30 GMT)
Expected weather conditions: Weather conditions do not matter in Millennium Stadium which can be sealed off against the elements.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Touch judges: David Pearson (England), Stuart Terheege (England)
TMO: Romain Poite (France)