Ireland must buck history against the Welsh ‘Bear’

Wales centre Hadleigh Parkes shares a moment with his wife Suzy after Saturday’s Six Nations clash at Murrayfield. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

When it comes to a Grand Slam finale on home soil, Wales lose once in a century — a fact that puts them on a par with one of the most revered serial winners on the sporting planet.

Jack Nicklaus may not have heard of the Six Nations, but a glance at the top of the leaderboard would remind him of his natural habitat, of how he never lost a major golf tournament going into the final round when at least one shot ahead of the field.

Wales, one point clear, are one more win away from emulating The Golden Bear.

After their businesslike dismissal of the feeble French, all Ireland have to do in Cardiff on Saturday, therefore, is change the course of history on the basis that there is a second time for everything, as they demonstrated in doing the double over the All Blacks.

Nicklaus may have won more Majors than the Welsh have Slams, but the Dragons have been at it for more than a century — each triumphant campaign seen as blazing proof that St George’s slaying of their fiery national symbol is just another English myth.

That such events come around in Wales on average once every 10 years make them occasions on a national scale. Ireland know how it feels to be on the receiving end, having lost on the same St Patrick’s weekend in 2005 to a fizzing Welsh team under a coach, Mike Ruddock, who has since evened up the score by wrapping the green jersey round his son, Rhys.

The Irish, of course, also know how it feels to win a Slam in Cardiff, 10 years ago when Wales merely had the title to play for after falling at the first hurdle that season to England.

Only Rob Kearney and Rory Best have stood the severe test of time since then, each ready to bust the usual gut to stop the Welsh doing what they did in London 12 months ago.

If retaining the title is beyond them, unless the flaky Scots work some sort of miracle at Twickenham, Ireland could still finish second, which is precisely where they finished 18 years ago after sabotaging an English Slam at Lansdowne Road. The IRFU rewarded the coach, Mr W D Gatland from Waikato, by giving him the boot.

How ironic if history were to repeat itself and rob him of the big prize on his last Six Nations mission in charge of Wales. Ireland will be working on nothing else all week.

Wales in Grand Slam deciders at home:

2012: France, Millennium Stadium: Won 16-9

2008: France, Millennium Stadium: Won 29-12

2005: Ireland, Millennium Stadium: Won 33-20

1988: France, Cardiff Arms Park, Lost 9-10.

1978: France, Cardiff Arms Park: Won 16-7

1976: France, Cardiff Arms Park: Won 19-13

1952: France, St Helen’s in Swansea: Won 9-5

1950: France, Cardiff Arms Park: Won 21-0

1911: Ireland, Cardiff Arms Park: Won 16-0

1909: Ireland, St Helen’s in Swansea: Won 18-5

Grand Slam deciders elsewhere:

1994: England, Twickenham: Lost 8-15

1971: France, Stade Colombes: Won 9-5

1965: France, Stade Colombes: Lost 13-22

How long can we tolerate Italian waste?

The Italian newspapers gave the Sei Nazioni short shrift yesterday — none of its three major sports dailies finding room on their front pages for even a microscopic reference to the ‘umiliata’ at Twickenham.

Conor O’Shea spoke post-match with characteristic dignity, in Italian and English, defiantly talking about “a step forward” — bit it’s a position which has long been the rugby equivalent of leading the orchestra on the Titanic.

What happened to the Azzurri at Twickenham on Saturday amounted to a depressing reaffirmation that they are no longer worth their place in the tournament. The Milan-based

La Gazzetta dello Sport

acknowledged that after Ireland won 63-10 in Rome two years ago, describing it as “the worst waste of a game in the history of the Six Nations. We don’t deserve our place.” After 21 straight championship defeats, the organisers have to confront a question which becomes more awkward with every round: How many more can we afford to let them lose?

The issue will be forced by the advent of the so-called World League, assuming ex-Argentina scrum half Gus Pichot succeeds in establishing a second global division with promotion and relegation.

In that event, a failing Italy would be at grave risk of being superseded by a team ranked two places above them on the official list — Georgia. O’Shea can point to a decisive 28-17 win over the Lelos (4-1 on tries) in Florence last November as evidence to support claims of progress.

Sadly, the silver lining is lost among too many dark clouds. Since their last Six Nations win, at Murrayfield on February 28, 2015, Italy have lost the lot, not by one or two missed shots at goal, but by an average of 41-15.

Imagine how much worse it would have been without Sergio Parisse, for many years the best No. 8 in the world. Never, to re-word a piece of Churchillian rhetoric, can one rugby man have given his country so much for so long and received so little in return?

Wales in bonus territory

Perhaps it’s just as well the Six Nations took their time over bonus points. The delay spared them from presiding over a tournament where the Grand Slam winners would have finished second and one of their victims declared champions.

In 2002, England won four of their five matches with a try bonus and took a losing bonus from the one they lost, in Paris. France managed only one try bonus in winning all their matches which would have meant both finishing level on 21 points.

England would then have claimed the title on two counts, superior points difference (131-81) and more tries (23-15). To pre-empt a repeat of the same scenario, the organisers set aside three additional bonus points for the Grand Slammers, not that Ireland needed any such protection last season.

Given the likelihood of England finishing as they started with a five-pointer, Wales will be glad of the extra three, unless Ireland persuade them to break the habit of 110 years.

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