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Rugby World Cup: Wembley Way is a familiar path for Ireland's players

By Jonathan Bradley

Having spent their week at the English football team's custom-built St George's Park headquarters, many of Ireland's World Cup squad will be fulfilling a childhood dream when they run out at Wembley to take on Romania this weekend.

Paddy Johns, the Irish captain on the occasion of their only previous game at the iconic stadium, is sure that the breath-taking experience will be a memorable occasion for the soccer enthusiasts within the camp.

Johns led out the side in the Five Nations in February 1999, when Wales played their home games in London during the construction of the Millennium Stadium, and skippered his men to a 29-23 win built upon tries from Keith Wood and one-time Ulster centre Kevin Maggs.

For the avid Leeds United supporter, the day at Wembley was special.

"From childhood, it was such a huge event watching the FA Cup final," said Johns.

"Back then it was an all-day thing. You'd watch the bus arriving, the gates of the stadium open and so on.

"I just remember always dreaming about leading out a side at Wembley but never thinking it could be a reality having went down the rugby route.

"For it to happen, I just had flashbacks the whole time of watching the players arrive back at all those FA cup finals.

"To do it as a rugby player, to run out from that famous tunnel and onto the pitch really was a dream come true for me.

"It's an opportunity, with the World Cup, that's probably once in a lifetime.

"Only a few people can say they've played rugby at Wembley.

"It's one of the most famous stadiums in the world and I'm sure there'll be a lot of players who will be buzzing this weekend, just like I was.

"Playing at Wembley, the atmosphere surrounding the game, that feeling of being a part of a bigger tournament, it's something that really is hard to beat."

Pre-match, Johns did his best to soak up every ounce of the experience - even if scanning the crowd for his family produced something of a shock when he clapped eyes on his wife in a full-length Wales-red coat. However, as soon as the first whistle blows, the surroundings mean little.

"Once everything is under way, you focus on the game," he continued.

"It's much easier than people probably think, to forget about what's outside the lines of the pitch.

"The pre-match when you're playing at these prestigious stadiums is great but it all just fades into the background whenever it's time to start the game."

Johns was also on the pitch for Ireland's first World Cup meeting with Romania and current international boss Joe Schmidt is no doubt hoping for a repeat of that 1999 result.

Johns' side won comfortably that day at Lansdowne Road - securing victory thanks to scores from Dion O'Cuinneagain, Andy Ward, Tom Tierney and a Conor O'Shea brace - with the 59-times capped second-rower, despite playing the game in something of a daze, recalling that Warren Gatland's side handled the contest perfectly.

"I remember that game really well," he said.

"The night before, I was in the hotel and my wife rang me to say she'd went for her scan and we were having twins.

"I remember thinking we already have two, two more together could be a nightmare! Thankfully not, but at the time my head was everywhere.

"We beat them comfortably enough and I think Joe Schmidt will be happy if they're as effective as we were back then.

"If you can use the bench and keep enough back that you don't feel as if you're peaking in your second game of the tournament, then that's exactly what you want.

"Just be solid, don't be afraid to use the pack, a few driving lineouts and things along those lines."

With New Zealand potentially waiting in the quarter-finals, Johns feels it's imperative to win the pool and avoid a last-eight tie with the All Blacks, even if it means facing an Argentinian side who have proved hugely tricky in past tournaments.

"You really want to win that group so you don't have to face New Zealand in the quarters," Johns added.

"Argentina are a good side but one that we would back ourselves to beat, especially over here and with the lessons that have been learnt in the past.

"It's early to be talking about quarters or semis but I really think that should be the target. In one-off games, you never know once it goes sudden death."

Belfast Telegraph


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