Ireland, Wales aim to entertain in quarterfinals
Updated: October 06, 2011, 21:41
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) The stakes could scarcely be higher for Ireland and Wales when they meet in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday.
Not only do the Celtic rivals have a blend of talent that may dilute with the post-tournament retirement of veteran players, but they have experience of only one World Cup semifinal appearance between them - way back at the inaugural tournament in 1987.
"We've a real opportunity to do what no Irish team has ever done before and reach a semifinal,'' Ireland prop Mike Ross said. "This opportunity, we're going to grasp it with both hands.''
Familiarity between teams can often result in dour tactical wrestles as intimate knowledge of opposition tactics allows sides to comprehensively counter the other's strengths and smother attacking outlets.
But probably not this time.
"It's absolutely massive this game for both unions. We'd be going to a place we've never been before,'' Ireland defense coach Les Kiss said. "We're having some jovial times out there but this is dead-set serious. Wales have a lot at stake as well.
"I know there's been a lot of talk about the South Africa-Australia game being the game of the round but watch this game.''
Ireland is arguably narrow favorite having won four of the last six meetings and nine of the last 12. The Irish also beat Tri-Nation champion Australia, hammered Six Nations rival Italy and topped its first-round group for the first time at a World Cup, scoring 15 tries in the process.
But Wales did win the most recent encounter 19-13 in Cardiff during this year's Six Nations and, although it lost its World Cup opener to defending champion South Africa, it was only by a single point at 17-16.
The Welsh also eased through to the next round with 23 tries in its favor - a total fewer only than host New Zealand and the Wallabies.
So it should be a match with plenty of points.
"If we've got anything to do with it, it will be,'' Wales forwards coach Robin McBryde said. "It'll be interesting to see if they enter into the spirit of things.''
With Wales coach Warren Gatland having been undecided for much of his tenure between the steady hand of Stephen Jones and the head-up playmaking of James Hook, much of the newfound balance in the side comes from the emergence of Rhys Priestland - a player who exhibits hallmarks of each.
"This is not said in a derogatory sense at all, but they became a bit predictable,'' Ireland backs coach Alan Gaffney said. "A lot of people were saying 'it's an attractive brand of rugby,' but it was predictable.
"They've changed that attack. It's more potent now than we believe it was.''
Priestland will start at No. 10 in a Wales team showing five changes to that which beat Fiji 66-0 in its last match in Pool D.
Leigh Halfpenny replaces Lee Byrne at fullback, Jonathan Davies takes over from Scott Williams at outside center and Shane Williams returns from injury to reclaim his place on the left wing.
Flanker Dan Lydiate has also overcome an injury to take over on the blindside from Ryan Jones, who moves to the bench, while Alun-Wyn Davies rejoins Luke Charteris in the second row, pushing Bradley Davies into the reserves.
Hook will be on the bench and veteran kicker Jones misses out entirely.
"I have surprised myself with how relaxed I am and I think that's a lot to do with the training we've had and the fact that we have a lot of confidence in each other,'' Priestland said. "Steve was the first one to come up and congratulate me and that does mean a lot. I come from the same region and know him well.
"It must be tough for him, but I am sure if I ask him anything he will be more than happy to help me, so it's good knowing that.''
Lions winger Shane Williams is one of those players - from each side - who may never play another World Cup match if they end up on the losing end this week.
"If we don't do well on Saturday, it could be my last game,'' the 34-year-old Williams said. "I don't want to finish playing rugby for Wales. I never want to, but you don't get many wingers playing after 40 and doing well.''
On the Ireland side, captain Brian O'Driscoll, lock Paul O'Connell and flyhalf Ronan O'Gara are among those who are almost certainly at their last World Cup.
O'Gara will start ahead of Jonathan Sexton in an Ireland lineup unchanged from that which withstood extreme provocation by Italy's combative forwards in the final Pool C match.
Ireland hooker Rory Best overcame a potentially tournament-ending shoulder injury from the last match to take his place in the front row.
"Rory's come up great,'' Kiss said. "We obviously had some precautions in place and were ready to cover but he's in tip top shape. Full credit to him and full credit to the medics. He's fine to start.''
Wales' 49-6 loss to New Zealand in 1987 remains the only appearance by either side in the last four at a World Cup, with Ireland having fallen four times in the quarterfinals. With England playing France in the other match on their side of the draw, the Celtic teams know there will be a northern hemisphere side in the final and that it could be them.
But neither wants to think that far ahead.
"A final place? That's two games away. Why would you even contemplate thinking about a semifinal or the prospect of a final when you've got a quarterfinal this weekend?'' O'Driscoll said. "No, we've got way too much respect for Wales to be looking beyond them.''
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll (captain), Gordon D'Arcy, Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris, Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Donnacha Ryan, Denis Leamy, Eoin Reddan, Jonathan Sexton, Andrew Trimble.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Adam Jones, Huw Bennett, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Lloyd Burns, Paul James, Bradley Davies, Ryan Jones, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams.