...Triple Crown Honours Up For Grabs...Jones Ready For Battle Of The Number 10s...Home Comfort For Ireland...Say What?...Numbers Game...
TRIPLE CROWN TROPHY UP FOR GRABS: Wales will have the chance to lay their hands on the Triple Crown trophy for the first time, if they beat Ireland at Croke Park on Saturday.
Ireland, the current Triple Crown holders, are the only team that can deny Warren Gatland's side that honour now. Despite the history of the Triple Crown in home nations' rugby, there had never been a permanent trophy produced until 2006.
The trophy, commissioned by Six Nations' sponsors RBS, is a silver dish measuring 42cm wide and 5cm deep and weighing a hefty three kilos. It was produced by Hamilton and Inches of Edinburgh and took over four months to make.
In its inaugural year, team captain Brian O'Driscoll lifted the trophy for Ireland at Twickenham on March 18, 2006 after a last-minute try from Shane Horgan gave Ireland a 28-24 win over England.
Ireland were also crowned Triple Crown winners - without the trophy - after beating Scotland 37-16 at Lansdowne Road in March 2004.
O'Driscoll and company did likewise at Murrayfield twelve months ago but this time they had silverware, once again, to celebrate with.
The recent list of Triple Crown winners, since Ireland's last championship success in 1985, can be seen below:
1985: Ireland 1986: Not achieved 1987: Not achieved 1988: Wales 1989: Not achieved 1990: Scotland 1991: England 1992: England 1993: Not achieved 1994: Not achieved 1995: England 1996: England 1997: England 1998: England 1999: Not achieved 2000: Not achieved 2001: Not achieved 2002: England 2003: England 2004: Ireland 2005: Wales 2006: Ireland (trophy awarded) 2007: Ireland (trophy awarded)
JONES READY FOR BATTLE OF THE NUMBER 10S: With the outcome of Saturday's game at Croke Park likely to be close, the performances of number 10s Ronan O'Gara and Stephen Jones will be so vital to their respective team's cause.
The pair know each other well from opposing each other at club and international level and they were also colleagues in the 2005 British & Irish Lions squad.
Jones, who has gotten the nod to start for Wales over James Hook, knows just how important O'Gara is to this Irish team.
The 30-year-old said: "Ronan brings a lot of stability (to Ireland), he's every effective and efficient in his decision-making. He keeps the ball in front of his forwards and I'm sure they thank him for that.
His kicking game is very good and gets the back-line moving well. He's a very, very good player and a player I respect."
As well as keeping tabs on O'Gara's form, Jones has had a difficult task of his own in beating off Hook for the Welsh number 10 shirt.
But the Llanelli Scarlets clubman welcomes the current pressure on him to gain a starting slot, admitting: "There's fantastic competition for places in the squad at the minute - from my point of view, it's the best I can remember it. It's only good for Welsh rugby."
THE TALE OF THE TAPE -
RONAN O'GARA (MUNSTER/IRELAND)
• Born: March 7, 1977; Height: 6ft; Weight: 13st 1lb
• 81st cap - 14 tries, 127 conversions, 151 penalty goals, 11 drop goals = 810 points
• Debut: 2000 v Scotland
• 9th Test v Wales - 3 tries (2002, 2004, 2007), 10 conversions, 10 penalty goals, 1 drop goal = 68 points
• First points and try scorer for Ireland at Croke Park (v France 2007) and also RBS man-of-the-match for all 17 points in 20-17 defeat
• Has 426 Six Nations points to date - second behind Jonny Wilkinson (470) and ahead of Neil Jenkins (406)
• Now 8th on world all-time points lists - Percy Montgomery is 7th with 873 points
• Top of the points list for the 2005 and 2006 and 2007 RBS 6 Nations
• One of the players who made their Test debuts v Scotland in 2000 immediately after the 50-18 loss at Twickenham
• 2005 Lions v New Zealand - 3rd Test (replacement)
• Played in three Heineken Cup finals with Munster, with 13 points in the 23-19 win against Biarritz in 2006. Also Lions tourist in 2001 (Australia)
STEPHEN JONES (LLANELLI SCARLETS/WALES)
• Born: December 8, 1977; Height: 6ft; Weight: 14st 12lbs
• 69th cap - 6 tries, 110 conversions, 112 penalty goals, 3 drop goals = 595 points
• Debut: 1998 v South Africa
• 9th Test v Ireland - 3 tries, 9 conversions, 12 penalty goals, 1 drop goal = 72 points
• His first 3 Test tries scored were against Ireland in 2000, 2002 and 2003. 4th v England at the 2003 World Cup to finish off marvellous team effort, 5th was against Romania in autumn 2004 and 6th v Italy 2006
• Scored 320 Six Nations points to date - is second in the Wales lists behind Neil Jenkins (406) and fourth overall behind Jonny Wilkinson, Jenkins and Ronan O'Gara (all over 400 points)
• 2nd in Wales all-time points scorers' lists - behind only Neil Jenkins (1049), with Paul Thorburn (304) back in third place
• Test debut in Wales' heaviest defeat by 96-13 at Pretoria v South Africa
• Played in all 4 Tests at the 2007 World Cup and 31 points in his 3rd World Cup tournament
• 9 Tests as captain of Wales - one win v Japan at the 2007 World Cup (72-18)
• Had 8 seasons in Llanelli first team squad and over 200 games in first spell after joining aged 18 at recommendation of Gareth Jenkins. Now back with the Scarlets from summer 2006 onwards, after 2 seasons with the French club Clermont Auvergne (Montferrand)
• 120th Wales captain v England in August 2003 (RWC warm-up). Second captaincy v Australia (2006) as coach Gareth Jenkins' choice. 3 Lions Tests v New Zealand (2005) - 1 conversion and 4 penalty goals in 3rd Test
HOME COMFORT FOR IRELAND: The list of matches below makes for pleasant reading for Ireland's players and fans alike. The men in green have not lost at home to Wales since April Fool's Day in 2000.
The current Ireland side have also won three of their four games to date at their temporary home of Croke Park - with a late try from France's Vincent Clerc handing them their only defeat so far.
Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan feels that his side's home advantage this weekend against Grand Slam-chasing Wales could have a telling influence on the game.
"We're comfortable at Croke Park after four games there. We're starting to settle and getting a good feel for the place," he said.
"Wales haven't been there before, and it's a very impressive stadium. They're very aware of that and know it will give us a lift, like the Millennium Stadium raises their game.
"Overcoming that will be quite a challenge for them. It's a stepping stone because they haven't been there before. If we can create a big atmosphere it will certainly count in our favour."
IRELAND v WALES RESULTS SINCE 2000:
Sunday, February 4, 2007 - Six Nations - Wales 9 Ireland 19, Millennium Stadium Sunday, February 26, 2006 - Six Nations - Ireland 31 Wales 5, Lansdowne Road Saturday, March 19, 2005 - Six Nations - Wales 32 Ireland 20, Millennium Stadium Sunday, February 22, 2004 - Six Nations - Ireland 36 Wales 15, Lansdowne Road Saturday, August 16, 2003 - World Cup Warm-Up - Ireland 35 Wales 12, Lansdowne Road Saturday, March 22, 2003 - Six Nations - Wales 24 Ireland 25, Millennium Stadium Sunday, February 3, 2002 - Six Nations - Ireland 54 Wales 10, Lansdowne Road Saturday, October 13, 2001 - Six Nations - Wales 6 Ireland 36, Millennium Stadium Saturday, April 1, 2000 - Six Nations - Ireland 19 Wales 23, Lansdowne Road
"The fact I don't have many caps doesn't faze me. All I know is that I have two more than Rob Kearney (my Leinster team-mate) - as I was telling him earlier in the week!
"As long as I go out there, do my job and get the respect of those guys who have the experience. If they respect you they'll play for you and that's what I want.
"I have no problem telling someone if they're wrong and I take any criticism on the chin. I have no problem speaking up."
- Ireland number 8 Jamie Heaslip on how he deals with his inexperience at international level and working with his more experienced colleagues in the Ireland pack
"It's nice to go back. I had some great experiences with Ireland and my time there, living in Galway and the west. I've a lot of friends there.
"I'm looking forward to catching up with some friends and some of the players in the team that I was involved with. It's exciting going back."
- Former Ireland coach Warren Gatland talks about his return to Ireland this weekend as he hopes to guide Wales to a Triple Crown
"Handling (Brian) O'Driscoll will be a big challenge that I haven't had to deal with before. He's powerful and fast but the one thing you can't coach is speed of thought.
"O'Driscoll has a great rugby mind and is incredibly quick to anticipate what will happen. That's the hallmark of a great player."
- Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards gives his thoughts on coping with the threat of Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll at Croke Park
60 - Saturday's game will mark Shane Horgan's 60th cap for Ireland. The Boyne clubman, who has been promoted to the right wing owing to the injuries to Geordan Murphy and Girvan Dempsey, will be a watched man - he has scored three tries in his four appearances to date against Wales
7 - The number of players in the Ireland matchday squad for Saturday that have never played before against Wales at senior level. In the starting line-up, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Eoin Reddan and Jamie Heaslip are first-timers, while replacements Bernard Jackman, Tony Buckley and Paddy Wallace have also never faced the Welsh
3 - The number of New Zealanders who have coached Wales in recent seasons. Warren Gatland, a former hooker and captain of Waikato, is following in the footsteps of his fellow Kiwis Graham Henry and Steve Hansen. He is the 19th Wales coach since David Nash in 1967