The country expects Ireland to deliver a Grand Slam at Twickenham. So should the players

Ronan O’Gara says this Ireland team should want to complete the Grand Slam, then go to Australia in the summer and win a Test series down there.

The country expects Ireland to deliver a Grand Slam at Twickenham. So should the players

Before England could win the World Cup in Australia in 2003, Clive Woodward went to considerable lengths with his T-CUP (Thinking Clearly Under Pressure) strategies to ensure his players truly believed it to be possible. The culmination of that block-building arrived a few months before the World Cup in Wellington where England beat the All Blacks, and even more importantly, in Melbourne where they silenced the Wallabies 25-14. They completed a three-match sweep Down Under by defeating the Maoris. Woodward now knew his players were emboldened to do wonderful things in the autumn.

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are the second-best team in the world now, with arguably the leading coach. The country expects Ireland to deliver a Grand Slam at Twickenham tomorrow. So should the players. They should want to complete the Grand Slam, then go to Australia in the summer and win a Test series down there.

With that, Ireland have grounds for considering themselves as a contender to win the World Cup in Japan next year. If you don’t tick those boxes, it’s hard to make the big jump.

The biggest challenge tomorrow is the surroundings. Winning on what will be a very English occasion, even on St Patrick’s Day. English rugby is supported by a wealthy elite. They do not cash in on their tickets and stuff five grand in their arse pocket. Irish fans will struggle to unearth any extra tickets. They will be in the minority. But that English support needs something happening on the pitch to energise them.

Ireland know the England players inside out, and the English know that. There’s been an overwhelming demand to throw something different at Ireland this time. To put some proven winners in pivotal positions. There’s a theory down here about Eddie Jones, how he brings a massive bounce effect when he comes in as head coach. 5am sessions, a great buzz, a feelgood factor.

But is it sustainable over a period of time? And have we hit the tipping point already? Losing in Edinburgh to Scotland was a disappointment, and there was undoubtedly the honesty call in the meeting the following Monday. An opportunity to make a statement against France. That was the worrying bit. They were brutal in Paris last Saturday.

Confidence is now an issue. Care and Ford are gone from half back, unable to provide the attacking platform England require. Nine and ten is an area of weakness for England, that’s the reality of it, without Farrell in the pivot. That’s been rectified.

Dylan Hartley may think he brings a confrontational edge, but any time Ulster and Northampton have met, Rory Best’s got the better of him. The Saracens locks have a winning pedigree, but Henderson and Ryan has a lovely defiance about it. Ryan has been sensational for Ireland and I think the Irish back row are licking their lips in anticipation at this one.

James Ryan
James Ryan

It’s whether Ireland can keep their composure. That may be the only thing that could unhinge them. They won’t be lacking for motivation. But the performance against Scotland on Saturday hardly put to bed the issues on defence. There’s definite doubts now among the players about the D coming into Twickenham. There have been too many episodes in successive games when Ireland are getting breached.

While he is burning it up with a phenomenal strike rate, Jacob Stockdale is obviously struggling with the defensive side of the game. That’s completely normal for a 21-year-old. There will be doubts in his head about what his role is when the opposition has the ball but that will develop with experience, and with the excellent guidance of Andy Farrell.

If I could offer a small bit of advice, he should stay as close as possible to the gem that is Farrell for as long as possible because it will stand to him for the rest of his career.

When was the last time we saw a Schmidt debutant or rookie perform poorly? Again, it speaks volumes for the environment he has created, which is the essence of good coaching.

He makes it very, very easy for players to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. We may give out a little bit (we are Irish, aren’t we?) about the creativity from time to time, but Schmidt’s system is brilliant and simple at the same time for a player coming in. They know their role inside out — it’s all attainable goals the players need to tick off during a game and because he is consistently driving the same message week after week, the players get comfort out of that. Like ‘if I buy into this I am going to get a return out of it’.

Ireland have now delivered three of the last five Six Nations championships. But not everyone’s happy. In Ireland, we have to find something to gripe about, even as serial winners. Cop on. I get the viewers’ point of view but I get it from the coaching side of it more. I think we are talking about the next All Black coach at this stage.

The thought process for Schmidt to come up with that Ringrose wraparound 10m from the Scottish line for Stockdale’s second try comes from unbelievable analysis. Who else is coming up with that?

Gregor Townsend has begun to reshape what Scotland are about but every week — every week — there is evidence of Schmidt’s work in an Irish performance.

Further encouragement is offered by Garry Ringrose. It feels like a freer team when he’s there, which is a lovely thing to have. The centre just provides natural balance.

Most of the younger ones won’t appreciate the opportunity in front of them tomorrow. How could they? It’s come so early for the Ringroses, the Stockdales, the Ryans.

Nine years on, what would I do to have one last crack off a second Grand Slam? And not just that: A Grand Slam at the Colosseum of English rugby. Beating England in front of their own fans.

These are the moments that nourish our childhood dreams.

Does an eight-year-old’s rugby fantasies get any better than this?

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