Forget the hype surrounding this St Patrick’s Day Grand Slam showdown with England at Twickenham, Ireland boss Joe Schmidt will boil this Saturday’s Six Nations finale down to its very essence — us against them.
NatWest 6 Nations
England v Ireland
Saturday: Twickenham, 2.45pm
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
TV: TV3, ITV
Bet: England 21/20, Ireland 5/6, Draw 22/1
The head coach, his management team and all but two of his 36-man squad are entering uncharted territory this week as they chase the first Grand Slam of their careers.
Yet in winning two championships since succeeding Declan Kidney in the autumn of 2013, Schmidt has twice gone into the final weeks of the spring campaign, against France in Paris in 2014 and Scotland at Murrayfield a year later, knowing Ireland needed a victory to ensure they would be taking home silverware.
Though the stakes are higher this time around with a trip to Twickenham this weekend to fight for a Grand Slam, Schmidt has learned what he needs to do to keep his players focused on performance rather than prizes ahead of such a difficult encounter against the English and keep the mounting pressure and expectation outside his camp at arm’s length.
“You just isolate what you can do because I think as soon as you are looking at other influences and we are always relying on other influences - this is just us against them,” Schmidt said after Ireland clinched the 2018 NatWest Six Nations title last Saturday night to leave them just one game from a first Slam since 2009.
“We have to get over there and have our A game ready from the start because there’s going to be an extraordinary resolve amongst that English contingent after those two away losses. For a team that had lost one game in 25 to suddenly be 27 games and be on the back of back-to-back losses, that is going to make them incredibly keen to make sure that they deny us what we denied them last year.”
Managing players’ energy levels is another important element of Ireland’s preparations following four successful yet bruising Six Nations contests since opening the campaign on February 3.
Ireland have lost players to injury along the way, particularly at outside centre where having started without Jared Payne, both Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell sustained serious injuries in successive games.
“The best advantage there is that we’ve had seven weeks together on and off; a couple of down weeks where you might just have a couple of trainings, but that does build a bit of continuity,” Schmidt said before joking about having centre pairing Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose fit for the second week in a row.
“Obviously not (continuity) in our midfield, because I’m not sure what we’re going to do. We have to find another new midfielder because we can’t have the same two guys going out again. That seems to have been a pattern that’s been particularly successful for us.
“It would be pretty hard to go past Garry Ringrose - 90 running metres as I said earlier, 11 tackles, a massive work ethic and really smart performance in a lot of ways. From that perspective, it allows us to lighten the last week a little bit.
“Get the glue and sticky tape out and work really hard Tuesday, Thursday.
“I think that’s probably the most realistic way that we can approach our preparation into next Saturday.”
Schmidt was not prepared to weigh down James Ryan with the label of being the next Paul O’Connell.
With only full-back Rob Kearney and captain Rory Best having experienced the joy of winning a Grand Slam as part of Kidney’s 2009 squad, the majority of senior players in Schmidt’s squads have not experienced the challenge of closing in on a fifth championship victory in a row.
Yet there are also plenty of younger, less seasoned players in the current squad who have contributed considerably to the four victories to date and though Schmidt was reticent to predict great things of them in years to come he did stress that their roles this weekend will be just as important as the older guard.
The Ireland boss namechecked tighthead prop Andrew Porter, Jordan Larmour and Joey Carbery, each of whom made valuable impacts off the bench last Saturday while wing Jacob Stockdale extended his remarkable scoring streak to 10 tries in his first eight Tests as his pair of scores against the Scots took him to six for the championship, more than any other Irishman has managed in one campaign.
And in lock James Ryan, Schmidt has seen a 21-year-old Test rookie play with a composure and tenacity beyond his years in his first Six Nations though, again, the head coach was reluctant to be drawn into comparisons made elsewhere with his former captain Paul O’Connell despite another impressive performance in the 28-8 win over the Scots.
“Look, I’d never weigh someone down with that weighty a label. Having worked with Paul O’Connell, he is exceptional.
“Thirteen carries and 13 tackles today to top those two counts is an outstanding performance from a young man who is a very young man, in the tight forward position.
“It’s not like he’s come in as a fleet-footed back like a Jordan Larmour or a Jacob Stockdale.
So, you know, you’re excited about what he’s delivering. It’s great to have Dev (Toner) really stepping up and doing a good job and then on the back of that you’ve got Iain Henderson.
Quinn Roux came on and did well and I think the forgotten man a little bit who trained really well this week is Ultan Dillane.
“His power... two years ago when we went to England and he came off the bench - I thought he was unbelievably good. So, we’re going to keep trying to build that depth.
“I don’t mind putting that weight of responsibility on James and saying ‘you’ve got to keep going forward James because there’s other guys here’ but certainly wouldn’t label him with the world-class label of Paul O’Connell.
“Not just yet.”
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