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'A few players kicked off - but the rest is history'

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: January 29, 2013

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THERE were ballboy controversies affecting Welsh sports teams long before the world outside Swansea knew that Charlie Morgan even existed.

Rewind two years ago to Wales's Six Nations game against Ireland in Cardiff. The match that led to mocked-up images of Mike Phillips as a highwayman being splashed all over the Irish media, courtesy of an advertising campaign by a leading bookmaker.

The scrum-half had scored a game-winning try after an incident that saw the ball booted out of play and a lad on the sidelines pass a different ball to Matthew Rees, who threw in quickly, Phillips's pace and strength doing the rest.

Ireland complained that the score shouldn't have stood as Wales had failed to use the ball that had originally been kicked out of play.

But stand it did and unlike the old Murphy's stout ad, Ireland returned home feeling bitter. Very bitter.

The thing is, what do you do in the heat of the moment, with 74,000 voices screaming advice and your heart and pulse beating uncontrollably, in an environment that depends on thinking and acting faster than your opponents?

Ask Matthew Rees. "I was given ball, I chucked it to Phillsy and he did the rest," recalled the hooker.

"There were a few Irish players who kicked up a bit of a fuss, but the try was awarded and the rest is history."

Maybe international sport has these days become an arena where you take what you are given.

Wales had, after all, been on the wrong end of rough Six Nations justice themselves plenty of times before, notably in Rome four seasons earlier when they were told there was enough time to kick for a line-out, only for the ball to fly into touch and the game to end immediately at 23-20 to Italy.

Rees was hooker that day.

Anyway, he didn't cop flak after the events in Cardiff in 2011. That was reserved for Phillips, who was portrayed in a bandit mask in the Emerald Isle, with Paddy Power offering to refund every punter who bet on an Irish victory.

Rees himself has evidently not lost too much sleep over the episode. "It was about time something went our way," he said.

"Normally things go against us. We were fortunate to get away with it and we went on to win the game. Hopefully, it won't take something like that to win on Saturday."

Would he think twice about doing the same thing again? "No, definitely not," he replied.

Perhaps the acid test is to ask how Ireland would have reacted had the circumstances been reversed.

Let's just say it's not certain that Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell and Co would have immediately surrounded the ref, pleading with him not to award the score.

That doesn't make what happened right. It just puts it into context.

Wales haven't lost to Ireland since, stretching their hold over them to three wins, including a World Cup quarter-final victory in Wellington.

But Rob Howley's side are unfancied this time, with injuries conspiring against them, the regions having a tough season and Wales not having won for seven matches.

There is little expectation and in some quarters Howley's team are being written off.

"That was always going to be the case after we failed to get a result in the autumn," said Rees.

"But as a group we put pressure on ourselves.

"We know what we can do. We won the Grand Slam last year and we know from previous championships how important it is to get a good start. That's the most important thing this weekend, to get momentum going."

Whoever starts for Wales at hooker will have a chance to make a statement, with Ireland likely to include Rory Best, a player who has been feted as one of the most complete No. 2s in rugby.

Not only has Best delivered 64 successful line-out throws for Ulster in this season's Heineken Cup, he has also made his mark around the field, achieving turnovers and defending stoutly.

He is in career-best form and is being spoken of as favourite for the Lions Test hooking role this summer.

If selected, will Rees believe he is going up against a Lions hooker in waiting? "I don't think of it like that," he said.

"He's been playing well for the past 12 months and he's playing for one of the form teams in European rugby. All credit has to go to him for the way he's been playing. For me, the first thing is to start this weekend, then to put a performance in that is worthy of a Lions call. I just want to make sure my form is up there if I'm involved on Saturday and keep it at a high level for the rest of the campaign."

Where Wales shouldn't be found wanting is in the front row, with Adam Jones and Craig Mitchell back on the tight-head side and Paul James, Ryan Bevington and Gethin Jenkins covering loose-head.

Hooker is also ferociously competitive — Rees competing with Richard Hibbard and Ken Owens for the shirt, though Hibbard has been struggling with injury.

"We're fortunate in Wales in that Hibbs has been playing well for the Ospreys and Ken has been champing at the bit for the Scarlets," said Rees.

"Emyr Phillips is coming through with us as well, while Marc Breeze had been going quite well for the Blues.

"So we have that strength in depth.

"It's what you want as a hooker because you know if you don't put in the performances someone else will."

Rees continued: "It's good to see Adam fit again. He's one of the best tight-heads in the world and the scrum is an area where we can have a go at and hopefully be dominant.

"The challenge for us as a pack is to set in place a platform for the backs.

"In Ireland last year George North and Jon Davies scored great tries and we want to bring them into play again.

"We have some talented boys behind who are dangerous with ball in hand. I'm pretty sure Ireland will remember how dangerous they are, too. We are just looking forward to getting started. We believe we're good enough to win the Grand Slam again; it starts on Saturday."

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