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Six Nations: O’Driscoll ready for proper test

By Niall Crozier

Brian O’Driscoll will seek to exorcise all thoughts of past club-level victories over Welsh sides from his mind as he leads Ireland out onto the Millennium Stadium pitch today (5pm kick-off).

The reason for his refusal to dwell on Leinster, Munster, Ulster or Connacht triumphs against Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets or Dragons is that the side facing Ireland is an amalgam of the best of those Welsh clubs’ players.

This is a different ball game, so no matter that Leinster and Ulster are in the last eight of the Heineken Cup and there isn’t a single Welsh side in the quarter-finals line-up.

Today is an international match featuring the best of the opposing nations’ rugby-playing personnel.

“The quality of players around is higher and so it brings out the best in you,” is O’Driscoll’s matter-of-fact assessment of such occasions.

“If you’re of Test standard then everyone else around you is playing to a similar standard that allows you to play your own game and to read off one another.

“I think it’s in the Test arena that you see the best in players, so I think it can be quite different to Magners League.

“Obviously there’s always going to be moments of individualism (in the Magners League) but when you see the bigger picture you can see the quality of a guy when he performs at Test level.”

Having had close-up experience of Irish battles as to who should occupy the all-important out-half berth — first the one between David Humphreys and Ronan O’Gara and currently the latter versus Jonathan Sexton — O’Driscoll has not been willing to enter into the Welsh debate as to the merits of James Hook and Stephen Jones.

Today it is Hook — off to join French Top 14 club Perpignan when the current season ends — who will wear 10, with Jones relegated to a place on the bench.

“I can’t say what Warren Gatland is thinking. I can only presume they are trying to find their best 15 with a view to looking forward to the World Cup and the only way you are going to find that out is by mixing and matching a little bit to see certain pairings and how they work, whether it be at half-back or in the centre,” O’Driscoll ventured.

“Obviously Jonathan Davies is playing well this year and has deserved his opportunity, so I suppose it’s a case, from their point of view, of fitting some of the most attacking players they have into the back line, whatever position that might be in.

“Obviously this week Hook is wearing the 10 jersey.”

Whilst loathe to single out opposition players, O’Driscoll does let it slip that he regards wing Shane Williams and Jamie Robert — two of his Lions partners — as being special talents.

“I don’t think there’s one person who stands out,” the Irish skipper begins, before promptly appearing to contradict that statement by highlighting the threat posed by the pair.

“I think Wales really tick when Shane Williams is playing well for them.

“He gets his hands on the ball a hell of a lot more than most international wingers and he has big moments in big games for them.

“He has scored over half a century of tries in 70-something Test matches which is a fairly impressive strike rate.

“You look at that alone and they’re going to try and get the ball into his hands and create trouble for us defensively. I don’t think you have to be a genius to work that out,” O’Driscoll says.

His midfield partnership with Roberts on the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa gives him quite an insight as to what the 6’4”, 17st 3lbs Cardiff Blues centre can do.

“A talented footballer, great ball-carrier, big, hard physical guy who uses his size really well.

“He’s the sort of guy who accelerates into tackles and knows what his power possesses so he’s definitely a player who is of a very good calibre and getting better with the more Test matches he plays. He’s a big threat,” the skipper warns.

The other side of the coin is that Williams, Roberts and Gatland will be saying exactly the same about O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe.

Expect some great action if any of those high-octane performers get a chance to shine.

Teams

WALES: L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); J Hook (Ospreys), M Phillips (Ospreys); P James (Ospreys), M Rees (Scarlets, capt), C Mitchell (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), A-W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys).

Replacements: R Hibbard (Ospreys), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), R McCusker (Scarlets), D Peel (Sale Sharks), S Jones (Scarlets), M Stoddart (Scarlets).

IRELAND: L Fitzgerald (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Court (Ulster), L Cullen (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), J Sexton (Leinster), P Wallace (Ulster).

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa).

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