DUBLIN, March 12 – Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll takes the field for his country for the 100th time on Saturday knowing victory over Wales will keep his side in the Six Nations title hunt.Dreams of back-to-back Grand Slams disappeared with a 33-10 thumping by France but last time out Ireland responded with a 20-16 win away to England.
After their Twickenham triumph, which saw prop John Hayes become the first player to win a hundred Ireland caps, it was no surprise when coach Declan Kidney named an unchanged starting XV.
The only change was on the bench where full-back Rob Kearney, fit after a shoulder injury sustained against France, returned in place of Andrew Trimble.
O’Driscoll is one of the outstanding centres of his generation and no-one has been more effusive in his praise this week than Wales coach Warren Gatland, who was in charge of Ireland when the Leinster legend made his Test debut nearly 11 years ago.
"Brian has got natural flair, is a good passer off both hands, has got a step and fantastic pace," Gatland said.
"He would most definitely be in most people’s World XV of the last decade," the New Zealander added.
That Gatland, who saw attempts to unsettle Ireland with some pre-match taunts last season end with a 17-15 Grand Slam-clinching win for the visitors in Cardiff, has so far failed to launch any verbal hand grenades is a testament to Wales’s plight.
In the reverse of the old song lyric, for Wales it’s not how they finish but how they start that’s the issue.
Gatland’s team have staged dramatic fightbacks against England, Scotland and France so far this Six Nations.
But only an astonishing rally against Scotland has led to victory and Wales are now a lowly fourth in the table.
"A lot has been made about how we start games, but the important thing for us is that we are not far away," said Wales flanker Jonathan Thomas.
"We need to concentrate more at the start and not give ourselves such a mountain to climb."
Ireland flanker David Wallace is wary of Wales’s threat behind the scrum although the Irish backs, as they showed in scoring three tries against England, when directed superbly by fly-half Jonathan Sexton, are also a potent attacking force.
"Wales have been unlucky at times and we know that against them you must expect the unexpected," said Wallace.
"They like to pass the ball and if the game gets loose they can cause you a lot of damage. Some of their backs are very quick and agile and it can be hard to stop them."
But first Wales must ensure the likes of wing Shane Williams have the ball. Ireland engineered several turnovers against England, with No 8 Jamie Heaslip a major force at the breakdown.
Wales, who will need set piece solidity, will be without captain Ryan Jones because of a calf problem, with Gareth Delve brought in at No 8.
British and Irish Lions hooker Matthew Rees makes his first Six Nations start this season after recovering from a groin injury, replacing Huw Bennett, while lock Luke Charteris comes in for the injured Deiniol Jones.
On the bench Dwayne Peel provides scrum-half cover for Richie Rees after the injured Mike Phillips was ruled out.
Experienced flanker Martyn Williams takes over as captain and Wallace is well aware of the threat posed by his fellow loose forward.
During last year’s Lions tour of South Africa, Wallace kept the Welshman on the bench for the first two Tests but changed places for the series finale.
"Martyn is a very good footballer, said Wallace. "He’s very good at poaching balls. If you don’t have good numbers around rucks you leave yourself open for him to pilfer the ball.
"He can play like an outside-half or winger at times – he has soft hands and can kick too," Wallace added.
"It’s hard to pick faults in his game," – which is pretty much what Williams said about O’Driscoll.