Ahead of their Six Nations clash with Ireland, Donal Lenihan says the Welsh players have plenty of reasons to dig deep and deliver a potential season’s high.
Cardiff Arms Park.
For years it proved a graveyard for Irish rugby teams. Throughout the 1970s Wales appeared invincible there. One of my earliest memories of the then Five Nations championship dates back to that famous try by Gareth Edwards — who else — against Scotland in 1972, sliding through the mud in the corner after leaving a trail of Scottish players in his wake.
I have a vague recollection of the grainy black and white coverage of the game three years earlier when the Welsh captain Brian Price floored Noel Murphy with a punch that set the scene for another failed attempt at winning a Grand Slam with three Irish wins in the bag entering that final game.
For many like me growing up in that period, it was the sight of JPR, JJ Williams, Gerald Davies, Barry John, or Phil Bennett carving their way through opposition defences, not by virtue of a massive physical presence but with electrifying pace and magical feet that defined what rugby was all about.
Ireland just did not appear to have anyone, Mike Gibson apart, to captivate a crowd in the manner the Welsh seemed capable of every time they had the ball.
The Five Nations came on my radar in an era dominated by Wales. They didn’t play against the major touring sides from the southern hemisphere quite as often in those days so making comparisons and identifying their place on a world pecking order was difficult.
It was surely no coincidence however that during this period the Lions won a Test series for the first time.
Two on the bounce to be precise with a first, and to date only, series win over New Zealand in 1971 followed four years later by another first in South Africa.
Both Lions squads were backboned by those Welsh greats. I first played against Wales at the famed Arms Park in 1983, having beaten them in my first ever encounter at Lansdowne Road the previous year.
That Championship- winning Irish side had some of the best players to wear a green jersey (to that point) but many appeared scarred by events of the past and a failure to win in Cardiff at any stage in their famed careers.
Ireland hadn’t won in Cardiff since 1967 and while the vast majority of that, all conquering, Welsh team had retired, their influence still hung over Ireland that day. We lost a game we were more than capable of winning meaning the likes of Ollie Campbell, Fergus Slattery, Willie Duggan, Moss Keane, and John O’Driscoll never tasted the sweet satisfaction of beating Wales in Cardiff.
That defeat also cost us a Grand Slam as we beat England, France, and Scotland that season.
Two years later the Welsh hoodoo was finally but to bed when a young Irish side carrying no such inhibitions or baggage won 21-9. Since then Ireland’s record in Cardiff has been pretty impressive.
Technically, Cardiff Arms Park became the National Stadium after a major upgrade in 1984 but that title never really stuck in the minds of the rugby public.
The Arms Park carried a status in rugby terms that set it apart. It was the venue that every international player wanted to sample at least once in his career and what an experience it was.
Sitting in the bowls of the stadium, getting ready in the away dressing room — we didn’t warm up on the pitch in those days — it was impossible not to hear the hymns and arias resonating from the stands and terraces in the 30 minutes prior to kick-off. It was magical.
I was equally fortunate to sample that feeling from the comfort of the home dressing room on two memorable occasions, representing both the Barbarians and the Lions against international opposition.
Having that fanatic crowd on your side for a change was a hair-raising experience. Despite that harrowing defeat to Scotland last time out, the Welsh players are sure to have that fanatical support to drive them forward once again on Friday night provided they give the crowd something to shout about.
In a massive undertaking for the 1999 World Cup — Wales were forced to play their ‘home’ games at Wembley for a two-year period between 1997 and 1999 — a complete rebuild took place and the Arms Park was no more.
It’s replacement, the Millennium Stadium, has proven even better.
A magnificent arena — the best and most atmospheric in the international game — it became a bit of a spiritual home from home for the Irish during the noughties.
For Munster supporters, that historic win over Biarritz in 2006 when the late Anthony Foley led the province to that first Heineken Cup title will always resonate as will the victory there over the aristocrats of European rugby, Toulouse, two years later.
Leinster counterparts can rightly point to perhaps their province’s greatest ever victory away from home when Joe Schmidt’s men overturned a 16 point deficit at half time to beat Northampton Saints 33-22 in a game that marked Johnny Sexton’s coming of age.
Two years earlier his great rival for the Irish No 10 shirt, Ronan O’Gara, cemented his place in Irish rugby folklore with that magical drop goal at the Millennium which finally delivered a first Grand Slam since 1948 in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Irish rugby may have assumed ownership of the place for a period and experienced some memorable moments but our last outing there, against Argentina in that shattering World Cup quarter-final defeat in 2015, served to fracture our relationship with the place. It left a sour taste.
Technically, the Millennium Stadium is no more. Commercial reality has dictated that since January 2016, in a 10-year deal, the WRU sold the naming rights of the arena to the Principality Building Society.
As a consequence, the record will show Ireland line out at the Principality Stadium for the first time when returning to Cardiff on Friday evening.
So, having experienced some of the greatest days in Irish rugby at the Millennium Stadium, what footprint in our rugby history will attach to “The Principality” between now and the next potential alteration in 2026?
In reality, the latest rebranding will hardly resonate with the Irish players when they arrive for their captain’s run tomorrow evening as, in essence, nothing will have changed since that last painful visit there against the Pumas.
The Welsh players have plenty of reasons to dig deep and deliver a potential season’s high in terms of performance next Friday night.
Having already lost on the road in this championship when failing to find the right mental pitch from the outset in Murrayfield last month, this Irish squad has been forewarned and know that Wales will be up for the fight.
Teams prepared by Joe Schmidt rarely make the same mistake twice.
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