Rugby Union: World Cup Hopefuls Await Wales' D-Day; IRELAND 35 WALES 12 Tries: O'Connell (2),Quinlan,Wallace,O'Kelly.Cons: Humphreys (4),Murphy Tries: Thomas,Evans.Con: Harris. D Youngsters Test Ireland but England Clash Team Will Get No

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Byline: CLAIRE TOLLEY

GARETH THOMAS is expecting to be given the nod for the World Cup when the team is announced to play England today. Thomas, who captained Wales in Ireland on Saturday,admits players on the team-sheet for the Millennium Stadium clash are virtually guaranteed a ticket on the plane Down Under.

But even though he acknowledged the majority of Saturday's team won't be in the reckoning,he still heaped praise on the youngsters' efforts against an almost full-strength Irish side, which included world-class players in the form of returning skipper Keith Wood and Brian O'Driscoll.

``Obviously, the game against England is going to be at home in Cardiff and there will be more of a build-up,and more pressure heaped on that game,'' Thomas said. ``I'm hoping to be playing. Everyone knows the majority of the team to face England are favourites to go to the World Cup.

``But that's not taking anything away from anyone in Ireland. I think the boys really performed and learnt a lot about playing international rugby.

``I would never pick players out but there were those like Ceri Sweeney and Dwayne Peel, who both put their hands up.''

Saturday was billed as a chance for the younger fringe players to stake their claim for a Wo rld Cup spot,and,despite their lack of experience, they gave a rusty Irish side a workout,if never looking as though they could force a win.

The result was Wales' 10th successive defeat,in front of an uninspired crowd of 20,000 at Lansdowne Road,but hardly unexpected given the decision to treat August's friendlies as an opportunity to experiment.

After the match,coach Steve Hansen was giving nothing away, saying merely that a couple of players had inked their names on to his World Cup list and a couple had their names crossed off.

Michael Owen,one of those who may well have played himself into contention on Saturday, indicated after the game that part of Hansen's World Cup master plan is to convert him into an international second row.

Owen, who had not played for five months after injuring his knee, frustrated Ireland at the lineout. A steal from a throw destined from Paul O'Connell, who had breached Wales' line after barely five minutes, saw the ball worked right, recycled and spun wide for Thomas to go over for his 31st international try to peg the scores back to 7-5.

Wales held out until the 30-minute mark, two tackles by Sweeney,one on Wood and another upending O'Driscoll moments later,highlighting Wales' attention to their midfield defence since struggling in their summer tours.

But the n,a scrum with a Wales put-in five metres out from their line saw it wheel violently and Thomas was forced to take the ball into touch. …