This week’s edition of PA Sorting Rivalries looks at the relationship between Ireland and Wales.
There was a time when Irish players and fans got on just fine with their Welsh counterparts. As the old saying goes, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ and both Ireland and Wales were happy to unite in their hatred of England. It was a case of two Celtic tribes joining forces in the face of a smug, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’-chanting evil.
In recent years, however, the relationship has turned sour and like scorned lovers, both sides love nothing more than throwing barbs at one another. Things have gotten to such a level that if you were to ask either side which game they would most like to win in this season’s Six Nations, the answer would probably be this one.
The rivalry began to get heated around a decade ago when the new Welsh regional teams joined the Celtic League. While the Irish were kings of the club scene, Wales ruled the roost internationally. Speaking in the build up to today’s game, Welsh prop Adam Jones said, “It is a bit about how well their provinces have done and there has been some controversy in recent matches.”
Controversy is certainly something that Wales-Ireland rivalry has not lacked in the last decade. After the Welsh defeated Ireland in the final game of the 2005 Six Nations to secure the Grand Slam, Gavin Henson claimed in his autobiography that Brian O’Driscoll had gouged him.
According to Henson, O Driscoll, “decided to pull my hair and tried to gouge my eye for good measure, saying ‘How do you like that?’” When Henson returned to Dublin with Wales the next year, he bore the brunt of hostile supporters and hostile opposition as Ireland ran out 31-5 victors.
Recent seasons have also had their fair share of incidents. In 2011, Wales secured victory in the sides Six Nations encounter thanks to an illegal second-half try from Mike Phillips. The scrum-half profited from a quick lineout that should have been called back. As Wales celebrated on the Cardiff pitch, everyone in Ireland became experts on Section 19.2 (d) of the IRB’s laws of the game.
Later that year, Wales became even more of an enemy in Irish eyes as they knocked Ireland out of the World Cup in New Zealand. After Ireland’s heroic pool victory against Australia, expectations began to rise that O’Driscoll’s last World Cup might go out with a bang but, ultimately, it ended with a whimper and a 22-10 loss to Wales in the quarter-finals as Declan Kidney’s team were out-fought and out-thought. Add in Bradley Davies tip-tackle in 2012 and you start to get the idea.
Despite all this, much of what happens on the pitch is only a warm-up act to the real reason behind the rivalry. The animosity between these two nations can be traced back to the night of the 28th of November 2001, when Warren Gatland, then Ireland head coach, was sacked by the IRFU in a coup led by his assistant, Eddie O’Sullivan.
Since Gatland took over the Welsh in November 2007, he has focused his ire on the little country across the Irish Sea. Prior to their meeting in his first Six Nations, Gatland publicly questioned O’Sullivan’s character and stating that he had been warned against trusting the Corkman in the first place.
The Kiwi impressively led Wales to the Grand Slam in his first campaign. The following year, he was on the cusp of retaining the Six Nations title. Only his former employers stood in his way, Ireland themselves in search of only the second Grand Slam in their history.
Prior to the clash, Gatland came out and said, “Probably, out of all the teams in the Six Nations, the Welsh players dislike the Irish the most.” Rugby’s answer to Jose Mourinho didn’t stop there, also questioning the Irish squad’s nerve when it came to dealing with expectations. In the end, a titanic clash was settled by Ronan O’Gara’s late drop-goal and Ireland secured their first Grand Slam for over 60 years.
This year’s match between Ireland and Wales has been given added bite after the events of the Lions Tour last summer. While there were grumblings about Gatland’s decision to choose Wales’ Sam Warburton as the Lions captain over the likes of Paul O’Connell or O’Driscoll, hysteria hit the Irish nation when the head coach named his team for the final test of the series.
On the morning of the 3rd of July, 2013, Ireland let out a collective gasp when news broke that O’Driscoll had not only been dropped from the first 15, but from the matchday squad altogether. In what was meant to be his defining moment, helping to win a Lions Tour on his fourth attempt, Ireland’s greatest ever player was cast aside. O’Driscoll was forced to sit awkwardly in the stands and watch on as Jonathan Davies, his replacement and a Welshman, put in an impressive performance. ‘BOD could have done that,’ the Irish nation sulked.
It is with this backdrop that Ireland and Wales now face each other in a crucial Six Nations matchup. Wales are looking for their third championship in a row while Ireland are in search for a fitting fair well for O’Drsicoll. Both sides navigated the potential banana skins of Scotland and Italy, respectively, on the opening weekend. Week 2 brings with it the first real test of their ambitions for this season’s championship.
For the winner, the campaign will begin to gather momentum, with the prospect of glory just over the horizon. For the loser, the Grand Slam is gone, the Triple Crown is gone and, most depressingly, it was all brought to an end by their nemesis, by ‘them’.
Pundit Arena, Padraic O Ciardha.
Featured Image By ArunMarsh (Arun Marsh) profile (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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