Cardiff turns Irish into gods of green

THINK of history’s great superpowers: The British Empire, the United States, the Soviet Union, the GAA. Now, think of the superpowers in rugby: New Zealand, South Africa, the current England side and, for over a decade from the late 1960s on, Wales.

During that period the Welsh were at the pinnacle of world rugby. It was quite common for their supporters back then, situated in the upper stands of the old Cardiff Arms Park, to urinate on the visiting fans below, mirroring what their team was doing to hapless opponents on the pitch.

That illustrious history makes their demise all the more tragic. Indeed, they have sunken so low that a pet pasttime of mine (slagging Welshmen) no longer brings any satisfaction.

That is one of the themes underlying tomorrow’s clash in the Millennium Stadium.

The other is Ireland’s unbeaten record in Cardiff stretching back to 1983. This is surely one of the most bizarre records in the game for, while Welsh rugby has undeniably been in decline since the mid-80s, some of the teams we sent over the Irish Sea have bordered on the Oliver Twist side of poor.

Yet, over the years, as England, Scotland and France habitually struggled in Cardiff, the Irish always seemed to be inspired by the stadium.

While running out at the Parc de Princes or Murrayfield would reduce Irishmen to Chivers’ status, the confines of Cardiff turned previously plodding Paddies into gods in green.

Remember Noel Mannion’s stirring run down the right-hand touchline to score that famous try in 1989? Or new boy Eric Elwood’s one-man show in 1993? Or indeed, Denis Hickie’s superb try in the corner in 1997, while still a callow youth.

There is every reason to expect another Irish victory in Cardiff tomorrow, and yet it is hard to get rid of this nagging feeling that it all seems too easy.

Eddie O’Sullivan and his squad, to their credit, are going out of their way to guard against complacency with their ban on any talk of the English and their consistent talking up of the Welsh. For his part, Steve Hansen has selected a side that looks to have more steel about it than any selected so far in the championship.

In hooker Humphreys, second-row Lewellyn, a motivated Charvis in the back row and Jones and Taylor in the midfield, the Welsh have a vastly experienced spine and they will not roll over as they did so famously in Rome. But will the urine (not unlike Welsh bitter in taste) flow in celebration of a home victory?

Well, nagging feelings notwithstanding, the answer is no.

IF O’Sullivan’s era has a defining characteristic it is professionalism. Even with the injury problems that have beset them, the Irish look far too strong to slip up at this stage.

Quinlan and Cullen are yearning to prove that they can be more than just bit part players and David Humphreys will have the forward platform he needs to prove his detractors wrong.

The only concern would surround the baffling decision to select Justin Bishop ahead of John Kelly on the wing.

Apparently, the London Irish man is in sizzling form, but the self-styled Simon Geoghegan has had his chances in the past and has failed to make the step-up to international football. Kelly, on the other hand, has made the step from club to provincial to international rugby with calm assurance. He may be perceived as a less dynamic runner, but I know who I’d prefer on the wing in Lansdowne Road on Sunday week.

Oops, don’t mention the war. First things first, expect a gutsy Welsh display but, ultimately, an Irish victory tomorrow and then we can all start polishing our pitchforks.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox