In a Celtic battle rarely seen on New Zealand shores, an Irish squad in good form faces resurgent neighbours Wales in the opening quarterfinal of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday, 6pm local time. The Welsh have deployed an expansive game of running rugby throughout the tournament, a style that has paid dividends with a single point loss to defending champions South Africa the only black mark on an impressive campaign in the cauldron of Pool D. Not to be outdone, the Irish trumped Australia with a heroic performance that secured their place at the top of Pool C; the Irish are unbeaten so far and have added a stoic defence, inspired by the swansong efforts of their ageing golden generation, to their traditional territorial game that has proved so effective in the sudden death atmosphere of the Heineken Cup.
Warren Gatland has ignored experience in favour of youth and form throughout this World Cup with much success; the Kiwi coach has entrusted his fearless young guns the task of delivering Wales just their second semi-final appearance in seven tournaments. Sam Warburton captains his side from a back-row with just 66 years between them as Dan Lydiate recovers from injury to replace Ryan Jones on the blindside flank. There are no changes elsewhere in the pack, as the formidable front row of Genthin Jenkins, Huw Bennett and Adam Jones makes its second start of the tournament. Stephen Jones misses the 22 entirely despite earning his 102nd cap last week as Gatland backs young Rhys Preistland to shine at fly-half. Leigh Halfpenny shifts to fullback to include the outstanding George North as Shane Williams also returns; James Hook can only make the bench.
The Irish have a familiar look about them as they aim to progress past the quarterfinals for the first time in World Cup history. Captain Brian O’Driscoll and his perennial partner Gordon D’Arcy line up in midfield for the 48th time – a growing international record – as fellow legend Ronan O’Gara provides his ever-cultured boot at pivot after shaking off the challenge of Jonathon Sexton. The pack contains more nostalgia courtesy of the mangled face of Paul O’Connell; however Sean O’Brien has earned more plaudits in a well-oiled Irish pack with his bustling style on the flank. Hooker Rory Best has been bracketed with Sean Cronin as he attempts to shrug off a shoulder injury but should recover to add another experienced voice to Declan Kidney’s veteran outfit.
Two teams in excellent form, two recent Grand Slam winners and two Celtic rivals. These teams know each other inside and out, but with the Welsh playing a style of rugby reminiscent of the host nation itself, the knowledge of Warren Gatland in his home country might just tip the balance. It’s a coin toss really, but I say the Welsh in a nail-biter!
Wales: 1. Gethin Jenkins, 2. Huw Bennett, 3. Adam Jones, 4. Luke Charteris, 5. Alun Wyn Jones, 6. Dan Lydiate, 7. Sam Warburton (capt), 8. Toby Faletau, 9. Mike Phillips, 10. Ryan Priestland, 11. Shane Williams, 12. Jamie Roberts, 13. Jonathan Davies, 14. George North, 15. Leigh Halfpenny.
Reserves: 16. Lloyd Burns, 17. Paul James, 18. Bradley Davies, 19. Ryan Jones, 20. Lloyd Williams, 21. James Hook, 22. Scott Williams.
Ireland: 1. Cian Healy, 2. (Rory Best/Sean Cronin), 3. Mike Ross, 4. Donncha O’Callaghan, 5. Paul O’Connell, 6. Stephen Ferris, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. Jamie Heaslip, 9. Conor Murray, 10. Ronan O’Gara, 11. Keith Earls, 12. Gordon D’Arcy, 13. Brian O’Driscoll (capt), 14. Tommy Bowe, 15. Rob Kearney.
Reserves: 16. (Cronin/Damien Varley), 17. Tom Court, 18. Donnacha Ryan, 19. Denis Leamy, 20. Eion Reddan, 21. Jonathan Sexton, 22. Andrew Trimble.