Ireland want to finish in way they wished they’d started

Such has been Ireland’s rise in prominence on the world rugby stage these past six years under Joe Schmidt that their days as party poopers are long gone. The one-off big performance to spoil a rival’s ambitions have given way to a higher standard and more positive motivations.

Which is why, in the Ireland camp, today’s Guinness Six Nations endgame in Cardiff will have nothing to do with stopping Wales in their quest to send head coach Warren Gatland off from the championship with the third Grand Slam of his 11-year tenure; any more than this is about closing the tournament’s chapters on the careers of both Schmidt and team captain Rory Best.

What is driving this Ireland team today, aside from the outside chance of retaining the title that a victory at the Principality would enhance, is the desire to put right the wrongs of their opening-round loss at home to England and provide a benchmark performance to propel the national side into their World Cup preparations later this year.

The minute a rampant England laid waste to Irish ambitions of a back-to-back Grand Slam last month, the clock started counting down to the World Cup pool opener against Scotland on September 22 in Yokohama.

Should Kieran Marmion come off the bench today to make his first appearance of the campaign, head coach Schmidt will have used 36 players over five Tests, more than he would have liked given the number of injuries sustained in the squad, but hugely beneficial in terms of deepening squad strength ahead of this autumn’s global jamboree.

While three victories have followed that defeat to England, the performances that delivered them have been stuttering save for Sunday’s opening 60 minutes that demolished France.

That gave Irish supporters the chance to soothe their fevered brows with the realisation that this had not been a crisis but a temporary dip in form as Schmidt and his staff slowly rebuilt confidence in their world number two-ranked side.

“I think it is really important for us to show progress,” Best said yesterday following the captain’s run session at an uncovered Principality Stadium.

“Obviously after that England game, we thought we had taken a step back in everything, just the way we played.

“We had prepared really well but for whatever reason, we didn’t perform.

“We looked a lot more like ourselves last week. But for us we have got to make sure we get better, we are going to have to be better this week and then when the Six Nations finishes we will have to address why we have started the last couple of either Autumn series or Six Nations reasonably slowly.

“We have got to make sure we leave the Six Nations with a point we can build on. We have to look and say, ‘well how can make sure that doesn’t drop. How can we keep pushing it up? Ultimately we want to ensure that bar is as high as possible leaving the Six Nations.”

Of course, Wales are going to have something to say about that. Just as Ireland had done in Paris 12 months earlier, their campaign had begun with a great escape at Stade de France and Gatland’s side has gathered momentum from there.

England were sent packing from Cardiff in round three and last Saturday’s hard-fought 19-11 victory over Scotland in Murrayfield was a defensive masterclass in the second-half, a timely reminder to an Ireland side beaten in their last two Six Nations visits to the Welsh capital when Schmidt’s men failed to sufficiently penetrate a thick red wall.

Best is under no illusions that Ireland are going to have to build on the strong 60-minute shift they put in against the French six days ago, only to fall off and concede two late tries in a 26-14 victory.

“I think it is going to have to be a fairly complete 80 minutes. If you slacken off at all, if you lose any moments of concentration, we know with Wales, with the ability they have in the centre, the speed they have out wide and also the forward power they have, they are going to capitalise on that.

“So it will look like a team that doesn’t give up small, simple errors. There are going to be mistakes, you are going to get knock-ons especially if the weather is bad, there’s going to be little errors ... those are going to happen in the game. But to get close to your best 80 minutes, they are at a minimum, but also how you react off the back of those (errors) says a lot about you as a side.

“Do you make a mistake and switch off, and the team doesn’t just get the ball back — they get yards. So there are just all those little simple things and you are trying to live every moment around the pitch.”

Such a feeling cannot be turned on and off like a tap. As this campaign has proven, it takes time to regather momentum and rebuild confidence and having been “a bit broken” after the loss to England, Schmidt has seen his players regain their swagger game by game.

“You never manufacture anything,” the head coach said. “It’s organic, it’s what they want to deliver and they’re driven as well. They’ll definitely want to deliver a positive performance. They want to finish the way they would have liked to have started, with the right amount of energy, with the right amount of focus that we can put Wales under pressure sufficiently well that we can get those fine margins to fall our way and get the result that we need.”

It has taken Ireland three games to get back on track and they are now at the point where they need to kick on to another level again. That the opportunity presents itself here in Cardiff, as Wales seek glory, is coincidental. Today, remember, is not about the Welsh, it is about the Irish.

It is St Patrick’s weekend after all.

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