x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A youthful Wales face Irish old boys

The match-ups all over the field have Conor O'Shea and Lyn Jones excited for the game that pits experience versus exuberance.

Left, the 23-year-old flanker, Sam Warburton, is the captain of  a Welsh side where eight of the match-day squad are 23 or under.
Left, the 23-year-old flanker, Sam Warburton, is the captain of a Welsh side where eight of the match-day squad are 23 or under.

If an all-Celtic quarter-final with a place in the semi-final of the World Cup at stake is not enough to whet the appetite of northern hemisphere rugby fans then listen to Conor O'Shea.

He says Ireland are a team "on a mission"; Paul O'Connell, the man mountain of a lock, is "in the form of his life"; this Wales team "could be a force for years to come" and he cannot "wait for the game", which he feels is "too close to call".

And this from a grown man who won 35 caps for Ireland and who has pretty much seen and done it all during his coaching career at London Irish and now Harlequins in the English Premiership. Nothing quite stirs the passions, it seems, like a rugby match between these two fiercely proud nations.

Lyn Jones, the former coach of the Ospreys in Wales, goes one step further and feels the match in Wellington could easily double up as the World Cup final.

"Both Ireland and Wales look like World Cup champions and who would have said that 12 months ago?" Jones, who left the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi in the summer to take charge of London Welsh, said.

The match-ups all over the field are mouth-watering: the all-British & Irish Lions showdown in the second row between O'Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones; the mighty front-row collision between Cian Healy and Adam Jones or the duel at No 10 between the master, Ronan O'Gara, and the apprentice, Rhys Priestland. Yet the most titanic of struggles should come in the back row.

"They have an outstanding back row and you'd be excited if you are a Welsh fan," O'Shea said referring to the triumvirate of Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.

Ireland, though, will fight fire with fire and field the uncompromising trio of Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

"O'Brien is just an animal," Jones said.

Comfortable playing anywhere in the back row and made captain of the Wales side just two years after his debut, Warburton is the pick of the loose forwards on show.

"Sam will prove to be the difference," Jones said. "He brings a fantastic balance to the back row. The Welsh thought Martyn Williams [the flanker who has won 99 caps and is a three-time Lions tourist] would be irreplaceable but he [Sam] has taken it to another level."

At 23, Warburton encapsulates the youthful spirit Warren Gatland, the coach, had imbued in the Wales side. Eight of the match-day squad are 23 or under. Ireland, on the other hand, are vastly experienced and this World Cup could be the last chance of glory for Brian O'Driscoll, their captain, and midfield inspiration, and O'Gara.

"It's time for these Ireland players to deliver or retire," Jones said.

O'Shea describes the Irish team who will take to the field today as "the golden generation" yet they have never got past the semi-final on the biggest stage of all.

"Ireland have got players who have won Grand Slams, Heineken Cups, Triple Crowns but nothing at the World Cup," O'Shea said.

"They are the oldest team in the competition and they remind me of the England team who won it in 2003. And for Martin Johnson [England's World Cup winning captain] read Paul O'Connell. He is in the shape of his life."

With France and England meeting in the other quarter-final in that side of the draw, a European team is guaranteed to reach the final.

"France have got some outstanding players, but look like they are imploding in front of the world," O'Shea said. "England have their off-the-field issues, but they are a hard side to score against. There is no easy way [to get to the final] but Ireland and Wales wont' get a better opportunity than this to reach the final."

Lurking menacingly in the other half of the draw are the southern hemisphere super powers. Australia meet South Africa in Wellington while New Zealand will start life without the injured Dan Carter against Argentina. Colin Slade has the onerous task of filling Carter's shoes at No 10. Ireland, meanwhile, have the luxury of selecting O'Gara and leaving Johnny Sexton on the bench.

"The All Blacks would be delighted if they had that sort of competition at fly-half," O'Shea said. "Both are outstanding players. Sexton has inspired Leinster to two Heineken Cups in three years while 'Rodge' was never going to settle for second best and a place on the bench."

Despite enduring a harrowing time against the Welsh in Cardiff in 2009, O'Gara has got the nod ahead of the precocious Sexton to join Connor Murray at half-back today.

"I've not been able to second guess Declan Kidney [the Ireland coach] in this tournament," O'Shea said. "Picking Murray was a brave, brave decision but I did have him down as Ireland's bolter at the start of the tournament."

The only injury concern for Ireland is the fitness of Rory Best, the hooker. Sean Cronin is on standby to play should Best not recover from a shoulder injury.

"It's pivotal Best is fit," O'Shea said. "The pressure will be on Cronin if Best doesn't make it. Best is one of those who is peaking at just the right time and his loss could affect the timing of the scrum, and the line and trajectory of the throw."

It is a game that will be decided by the narrowest of margins.

"It's so hard to call," O'Shea said. "I just can't wait for the game."

Added Jones: "I think Wales will win by the smallest of margins but that might be my heart talking instead of my head."

kaffleck@thenational.ae