RONAN O'GARA: Don’t shush Grand Slam talk, embrace it

Iain Henderson training with Ireland at Carton House yesterday.

Let’s hope that the Grand Slam hasn’t been treated as some sort of interloper around the team room in Carton House this week. Keith Earls was on the money when he said that the next two games were the biggest of his Irish career.

Why would the Irish players be keeping talk of the Grand Slam off the table, as some are suggesting? I hope and presume the players are talking about it all the time in terms of their focus.

Eight months of hard graft and meticulous preparation is down the toilet if they do the unthinkable and lose at home to Scotland tomorrow. Beating Gregor Townsend’s men is less a win in its own right than it is a means to an end now.

Gone are the days of Ireland’s rugby underdogs taking scalps. The lads have to accept their position as the No 3 side in the world now. Isn’t it time Ireland was winning another Grand Slam?

No-one in that squad should be entertaining thoughts of regressing back to old Ireland, ‘let’s put it up em’, type of stuff.

I find it nigh unthinkable that a Joe Schmidt Ireland would lose in Dublin tomorrow to a Scotland side which has forgotten how to win away from Murrayfield. Don’t tell me the reasons it’s possible. I’m not having it.

For all their scalps at Murrayfield — Australia, South Africa, France, and England — you can’t ignore the other side of the ledger and you can’t conclude anything but this team has a serious mental issue away from home.

Some glorious rugby followed by some appalling stuff which, as a coach, would have you lying awake looking at the walls every night.

Let’s remember where our thoughts were just over a month ago after the opening game of the Six Nations in Cardiff: How bad are Scotland? Since then, France could have won in Edinburgh and while Scotland were thoroughly deserving winners against England, let’s not forget the Danny Care intercept, and Farrell’s try — both called back.

Scotland won’t get to build on that victory because of the quality of tomorrow’s opposition. Ireland have really good rugby players and are mentally strong.

Scotland will also struggle with Ireland’s tempo. That’s what they do. Tempo, ruck, accuracy, ruthless execution, everyone knowing their role, getting over the gain line.

Anyone who indicates that Ireland are vulnerable in midfield has made their mind up
regarding what actually is Ireland’s first-choice centre partnership. They haven’t had a three-into-two situation yet between Henshaw, Ringrose, and Aki to make that call.

What Ireland lose in Farrell and Henshaw they gain in Ringrose’s ability to give the back line a different flow. A natural glider with great feet, he will open up the outside channels a little easier than you would with Farrell or an Aki-Henshaw partnership.

The return of Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson is, of course, a plus, but in or out, the train keeps moving.

How many this week have been writing about Ireland missing Sean O’Brien?

Don’t shush Grand Slam talk, embrace it

 

He remains, in my opinion, in relation to the World Cup, Ireland’s most important player — an animal capable of running over guys, busting things up, and scoring tries.

With the best will in the world to a prop, he doesn’t do those things. Furlong is important because while Andrew Porter stood up against Wales, it takes double-digits in terms of test appearances to get a true gauge of where a fella is at.

Iain Henderson I like, and his return ot the bench broadens Schmidt’s options as he can cover any of the back five positions in a test team.

Near the end of my own career, when I was on the bibs team against the starters, Henderson was a bib too, and we were looking to him to put holes in the first team. And everyone knew he could do it.

There are more reasons for a fella to be wearing a bib in training than just being outside the perceived first 15! He has footwork, he’s big and awkward, but his offload is good.

Henderson’s the kind of fella that makes the break another forward wouldn’t.

Don’t shush Grand Slam talk, embrace it

In attack, don’t expect Ireland to change too much. Statistically - and on the pitch - Ireland has the best ruck in the world, so it will again be the focus.

They won’t give away cheap points from the boot and as ever, Schmidt will divine a minimum of three or four opportunities per game for his team to score.

I’ve seen those little examples in every game. Against Wales, they went after Steff Evans in the air — Johnny overhit one kick, the second one was a 50-50 between Earls and Evans that the Welsh winger just about got.

A midfield scrum then going left via Murray and O’Mahony, Murray with the dummy run, ball moved back inside to Bundee Aki, and only a flailing arm denied him the break.

It didn’t quite happen, but the moments were created. That’s not playing what you see, that’s Schmidt orchestrating a game plan.

It will be interesting to get another look in a pressure situation at Finn Russell, who moves to Racing 92 from Glasgow next season. If he has strung together two performances of high quality in the test arena, I am struggling to remember them.

The world is full of decent 10s at the moment, but there’s a paucity of genuine class in the position. Russell produced a really good pass to Huw Jones that led to a try against England but some commentators have lost the run of themselves over it.

Stop saying things like it’s the best pass they’ve ever seen. Like EVER! Stop, please.

Huw Jones, for sure will take minding, not least because he has the eye-catching Peter Horne alongside this time.

Jones was exceptional against England, the leg drive for the try was exceptional for the fact that a lot of players would have been been happy to go to ground and keep the ball at that moment, but he found an extra gear to get over and finish.

Peter Horne makes things happen. A lovely stepper with a great feel for the game. I am continually impressed by his performances which indicate to me he is a really intelligent footballer.

Many miles south of Dublin tomorrow, the Crusaders head for Wellington’s famed Cake Tin to clash with the Hurricanes. Many moons ago I had a Kiwi No 12 outside me with Munster.

You probably remember Jason Holland. Dutchy is now attack coach with the Canes, and when Rassie Erasmus was quitting Munster, there were a lot of quiet talk that Dutchy might be making a return to Munster in some guise.

He has always had a great rugby brain, very smart. He might come back yet, but tomorrow he’s in the opposition booth trying to trip us up. The Crusaders have made a 2-0 start to Super Rugby and when you have momentum, you’re better off trying to keep it.

The good thing about this club is that the boys want to get better every week. Nothing feels like it’s a chore. They embrace the fear and the expectation. It’s a great mindset to have.


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