CARDIFF, March 20 – Ireland play Wales at the Millennium Stadium here on Saturday with the chance of winning a first Grand Slam since 1948.
The title-starved Irish have this season beaten Scotland (22-15), edged England (14-13), thumped Italy (38-9), and out-thought France (30-21).
The bid to end Ireland’s 61-year Grand Slam drought, and secure a first championship title since 1985, will be built around a solid forward pack led by the irrepressible lock Paul O’Connell and inspired by the free-running No 8 Jamie Heaslip, and also the pin-point kicking of Ronan O’Gara.
The current side, captained by centre Brian O’Driscoll, contains several members of Ireland’s so-called ‘golden generation’ but for all of them, Grand Slam heartache, most recently in 2007, 2006 and 2003 when pipped in the final game, has become a common occurrence.
Wales have notched up wins over Scotland (26-13), England (23-15) and Italy (20-15), but lost to France (21-16).
That has left the Welsh, Grand Slam champions in 2005 and 2008, with the possibility of a Triple Crown of victories over the home nations should they beat Ireland, and a Six Nations championship title should that win be by more than 13 points.
Ireland and Wales have both made changes in key positions for Saturday’s showdown.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney had reacted to his side’s 22-15 win away to Scotland last time out by recalling scrum-half Tomas O’Leary in place of veteran Peter Stringer and bringing back both Heaslip and hooker Jerry Flannery.
Wales coach Warren Gatland, Ireland’s coach for 38 Tests between 1998 to 2001 before being forced out in controversial circumstances, was heavily criticised for making nine alterations to the team that was narrowly beaten by France ahead of last week’s stuttering 20-15 defeat of Italy in Rome.
In response he made eight changes, recalling star flanker Martyn Williams, lock Ian Gough and prop Gethin Jenkins while in the backs centre Tom Shanklin starts alongside 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam midfield colleague Gavin Henson, who has never lost in all of the 11 Six Nations games he has started.
"I’m very happy to start in this final game. It’s great that I’m playing with Gavin. We know what a good player he is," said Shanklin, adding that he was well aware of the threat posed by O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy in the Irish midfield.
"They are two world-class players and we are going to have our work cut out," he said. "Obviously there’s pressure on the two teams. There’s pressure on Ireland to win the Grand Slam and there’s pressure on us to win the championship.
"It’s obviously in the back of their thoughts that they haven’t won a Grand Slam for 60-odd years. But we need to win ourselves, are playing at home and we are playing for the championship as well.
"It’s very important to get something out of the tournament. In previous years we’ve had good success, but never really backed it up. So it’s important we do keep this consistency with the team and the results.
"We know how much we’ve got to beat them by. But we have to win the game first. It does make our job a little bit tougher."
Ireland wing Tommy Bowe, who plays his club rugby for Welsh region Ospreys, will be lining up against eight team-mates and said confidence in the Wales camp was high.
"There’s a huge expectancy in Wales," the flyer said, "With the talent they have and winning the Grand Slam last year they are still expecting to win the championship, whatever the margin is they have to beat us by."
"In their minds the Six Nations is still a very realistic possibility and there is obviously the Triple Crown too. There is no doubt they have the players who can do it if they perform and if the passes stick."