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Howley hails Heaslip resilience

Wales assistant coach Rob Howley has hailed fit-again Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip as "an exceptional ball-carrier" ahead of his Test match return in Saturday's RBS 6 Nations showdown at the Millennium Stadium.

Heaslip has made a rapid recovery after cracking three vertebrae in his back during Grand Slam-chasing Ireland's 18-11 victory over France in Dublin four weeks ago.

And he will line up in an Ireland side seeking its third successive win against Wales, and record 11th in a row under coach Joe Schmidt at the expense of all opponents.

"He (Heaslip) has experience and quality, and I am not surprised he has made it," Howley said.

"He has shown a lot of resilience coming back like he has.

"He is an exceptional ball-carrier and will offer a running threat in terms of their gain-line against us. We will be wary of the 8/9/10 axis, which is quality and used to playing with each other for Ireland and the (British and Irish) Lions."

Heaslip's reappearance in the Test arena comes a Ireland aim to complete the penultimate stage of what could be a first Six Nations clean sweep since their 2009 Grand Slam.

After Wales, Scotland await them at Murrayfield on Saturday week, and Schmidt's men will arrive in Cardiff on the back of a convincing 19-9 success against England last time out.

Irish half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray tormented England through a brilliant exhibition of tactical kicking, and their battle with similarly in-form Wales nine and 10 Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar promises to have a major bearing on Saturday's outcome under an open Millennium Stadium roof.

Howley added: "Johnny is an exceptional player. He is very meticulous, and we all know what a quality kicker he is and his ability to get the best out of the back-line.

"It's a great match-up in the half-backs. You have got the experience against the lesser experience of Dan and Rhys, but you have players who are all playing well.

"We need to score tries to beat Ireland on Saturday, and likewise they need to score against us. What we don't want it to come down to is a kicking feast in terms of penalties.

"But there will be pressure on the day, and both sides are desperate to win. The key factor will be territory and possession.

"If one side is clinical in attack and creates the opportunities, you have to take them. That's the challenge for the Welsh XV on Saturday.

"The one thing we need to dominate is territory and possession. That's key against Ireland, and they will be looking at those statistics as well.

"It's all very well wanting territory and possession, but it comes down to your ability to keep hold of the ball. It's something we've got better at throughout the championship.

"If you have got possession, then you don't have to defend the aerial battle and the astute tactical kicking by Conor and Johnny. Keeping hold of the ball for long periods of time will put pressure on their defensive line."

Howley, meanwhile, described as "disappointing" comments made by former Ireland lock Neil Francis in an Irish newspaper ahead of Saturday's clash.

Although Francis acknowledged former Ireland boss and current Wales head coach Warren Gatland as a "winning coach," he reprised an eve-of-Six Nations personal opinion, claiming Gatland had "the intellectual properties of a tub of Flora."

Francis also harked back to the third Test between the 2013 British and Irish Lions and Australia in Sydney, describing Gatland's Lions team selection as "shameful nepotism."

The Lions starting line-up that day included 10 Wales internationals, while Ireland legend Brian O'Driscoll was controversially left out, but the tourists romped home 41-16 and claimed a 2-1 Test series triumph.

"The wonderful thing about rugby is that everyone has their opinion about how the game should be played and personalities within the game," Howley said.

"When it becomes personal it is disappointing. The game is bigger than that.

"It's a players' game, and for someone to have an individual criticism and a personal snipe at someone who has won a Lions series, been involved in Six Nations Grand Slams and championships is disappointing, because we don't need that in our game.

"Whether you are on Ireland's side or Wales' side, you want the best game for the players and coaches and we don't need comments like that, which I feel is a personal attack and totally unfair."

As for Francis' Lions barb, 1997 and 2001 tourist Howley added pointedly: "You have to experience the Lions to understand the Lions. I'm not too sure if Neil Francis was a Lion."

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