RUGBY:A QUIET Saturday morning in Ireland, a raucous Saturday evening in Wellington, with not a room to be had. Shame about the kick-off in European time but if ever there was a game worth getting up for or, depending on one's vantage point, staying up for, then this surely is it.
The last vestiges of Ireland’s golden generation have one last box to tick; and one last chance to do so. Standing in their way is the latest generation of new young tyros from the valleys.
With the semi-final a holy grail for both countries (Wales’ sole semi was in 1987 and Ireland are seeking to break new ground) unlike the respective Grand Slam coronations at Cardiff in 2005 and 2009 this time both sides have a Slam to aim for.
What’s more both sides have impressive coaching tickets, headed by men with two Grand Slams, three Heineken Cups, three Premierships, an NPC title, an Under-19 World Cup and a host of other achievements to their names. And both teams are in searingly good form here.
The contrast adds to the intrigue. Ireland – 734 caps and an average age of 27-and-a-half, are experienced and savvy, albeit with an infusion of youth, and with the momentum of four straight wins.
Wales – average age 25-and-a-half and 561 caps between them, have a more diminishing core of gnarled veterans, and are young and oozing self-belief from every pore, which has been imbued by their management and a potent run of form.
All of which has given added piquancy by the age-old international rivalry and latterly at “provincial” level. This is a one-off, light years removed from their first of two pool meetings at the inaugural World Cup here in Wellington in 1987. Whoever wins will become the first Celtic nation to reach the semi-finals since Scotland in 1991.
A common perception is of tight encounters in recent times, with two wins shared apiece in the last four outings. Yet Ireland have won 11 of the last 14 match-ups, and regardless of the defeat in Cardiff last March when match officials Peter Allen and Jonathan Kaplan spectacularly mucked up, Ireland also left a truckload of points behind them that day.
The Irish players are also much more proven in the rarified air of knock-out ties, the provinces having won four of the last six Heineken Cups and played in 23 knock-out ties in that time, to just eight by Welsh teams, who didn’t provide one quarter-finalist last season.
Individually the discrepancy is greater. Players like Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell have been fixtures in their sides. Many of the Irish players are in familiar terrain, many of the Welsh tyros are in uncharted territory.
History has taught us that the team with the more experienced strategists and team leaders pulls through in World Cup knock-out ties. Just think England four and eight years ago. Of course, lack of knowledge could be a plus, in that it induces fearlessness. There’s no guarantee that this mould won’t be broken one day, and it could be here, but very often this gulf in big-game experience manifests in key moments.
Where Rhys Priestland or, if he’s on James Hook, might struggle to land a decisive kick, O’Gara, or for than matter Jonny Sexton, have proven themselves more likely to. Even though the rain may relent, the wind at the Cake Tin can be capricious, and it may also be that Wales will play too much rugby whereas O’Gara or O’Driscoll will make the sensible and accurate play at some key second-half moment, and/or that collectively Ireland will seize the moment.
The return of the fit-again Dan Lydiate, Jonathan Davies and Shane Williams from injury, along with a recall for Alun Wyn Jones means Hook is on the bench alongside the precocious Scott Williams and Stephen Jones cannot make the 22. That merely serves to underline how potent Wales now are, with George North and a rejuvenated Jamie Roberts regular sources of go-forward ball or line breaks.
Only New Zealand and Australia have scored more tries, while only South Africa have conceded fewer points than Ireland and Wales. Yet in the crunch games against the Wallabies and Italy, Ireland didn’t concede one try, only leaking six points in each of the first halves, and not a point in either second half. You’ve got to like the smell of that.
True, you go through the head-to-heads or combinations and it’s hard to split the teams. Take the fascinating half-back duel, where Mike Phillips encounters a younger lookalike in Conor Murray, while on the flip side O’Gara is pitted against a younger lookalike in Priestland.
Both sides have very solid set-pieces, where Rory Best’s Lazarus-like recovery from a sprained A/C joint is a huge boon for Ireland, and in the heel of the hunt, the breakdown and the backrow battle could be king. Sam Warburton is a ridiculously good player, a strong ball winner who will probably do damage at the breakdown, while 20-year-old Toby Faletau is a dynamic carrier and ferocious in contact and Dan Lydiate gives Wales a third line-out option and huge work-rate.
But then Stephen Ferris is a ferocious tackler and carrier too, a prototype for the modern game who is getting better with every game at this World Cup, while in becoming a lineout option and getting down and dirty close-in, Jamie Heaslip has selflessly sacrificed the glory for Fez and the Tullow Tank (Seán O’Brien). For what it’s worth, this may also be where Ireland may have a key edge.
Head-to-Head: Played – 116. Wales 63 wins, Ireland 47 wins. Drawn: 6.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 8/11 Ireland, 22/1. Draw, 5/4 Wales. Handicap odds (Ireland -2pts) 10/11 Ireland, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Wales.
Forecast: Ireland to win.