Ronan O’Gara says the preparation Ireland is taking for what lies ahead is not to be snubbed.
I watched Ireland’s training session last Monday in Dublin after they’d beaten France. If you are conjuring up this notion of a gentle shake-it-out-of-the-legs session, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Joe Schmidt has everyone eating grass. He has Cian Healy reeling in Jack McGrath, Niall Scannell getting game time off Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony desperate for a start to stake his Lions claims. It goes on. The work-rate and diligence of Henshaw and Ringrose is immense.
A Six Nations down week is when the creases are ironed out and forward planning is laid in concrete. There is a hurler on the ditch in all of us, and even as Ireland are winning, we whisper to ourselves how we’d love something electric from them. Something to get us out of our seats more often.
We get all fuzzy in our thinking: why don’t Ireland conjure up dummy lines for their backs, get a little pizzazz into their work with the ball? Because the head coach is a master at efficiency - ruthless efficiency, workrate, accuracy, discipline. It’s like the Germans at penalty shoot-outs. We barely pause to reflect France were held to nine points and no tries last Saturday.
Schmidt probably doesn’t do car bumper stickers, but if he did it might read: It’s one way or the right way - and the one way doesn’t work. Look at the last 24 months and see how much better than Ireland the best team in the world has been - ie New Zealand. Is the gap unbridgeable anymore?
The weather conditions were difficult and things will be a lot different next Friday in Cardiff. By the by, the Welsh backline will cause more problems than their French counterparts too. Schmidt’s coaching detail provided the only five- pointer. Heaslip cleaning the far side of the ruck to create a hole for the scrum-half to dive into. That’s not happening by chance.
France started with intent but there isn’t The Fear there. If anything the second-half downpour spared them. They don’t have leaders, it’s a serious problem in French rugby. They need an Itoje or someone like that because Thierry Dusautoir hasn’t been replaced.
Wales? Wales will bring The Fear to the Millennium Stadium. They’ve only had a win against Italy and have to go to the Stade de France. The Welsh public will not accept losing four Six Nations games out of five.
The power of fear, the fear of losing, the fear of disappointing an entire nation, a powerful thing to have. When the human body is pushed to its limit to deliver a performance, it’s the fear that drives it there. Not just the dread of losing, the dread of not achieving.
You don’t get that as a sportsperson from weekend to weekend when it’s a league-type environment. Wales are ready to hit rock bottom, I think that has to be appreciated. Losing to Scotland for the first time in 10 years, losing at home to England, not getting a bonus point against Italy.
And the prospects, the dread, the fear of losing at home to Ireland. There’s a lot of trees cut down dissecting Welsh rugby. It’s all- consuming. It’s not Cardiff City or Swansea, with respect. This is the national game, the daily point of reference.
The Celtic nations all have that lovely desperation about us. We fit comfortably into the underdog mindset, it gives us our psychological compass.
We are great at proving people wrong but when we want to drive on then to the next stage, which is coupling expectation with delivery, we haven’t always been great. A little bit like what’s happening with Racing 92. Brilliant at coping with failure, not so brilliant coping with success.
Schmidt is beginning to crowbar Ireland out of that stereotype. That’s why next Friday is so fascinating. Ireland lost its first game but has quickly pulled things back to where they should be.
The only thing more manic than the Welsh Friday night crowd will be the players in red. Nobody’s should be surprised Johnny Sexton hit the ground running last Saturday, but there’s much more in the tank from him.
Wales is a proper test of where he’s at. If he gets his body right, he’s a better player than the other 10s in the competition - Owen Farrell is an extremely good player but he is playing 12.
Sexton can expose Welsh chinks. I have a suspicion the absence of Warren Gatland gives the Welsh players a small bit of a get-out if they are looking for it.
The quality of the Six Nations product must be immensely satisfying for John Feehan and the committee. I will look at England-Scotland in greater detail next week, but what an incentive there is for the Scots in terms of the championship itself. Their last game is against Italy.
England have had their poor game of the campaign last Sunday but in my head, the trickier 80 minutes ahead for Ireland is the one in Cardiff next week.
Joe has his squad on top of the ground, ready to explode. And if the conditions didn’t facilitate their best last Saturday, the Millennium Stadium will. There will be sparks.
*On a far more serious matter, what is going on with the hairstyles being paraded in the once-respectable world of Schools rugby!!! I sat down on Wednesday at home in Paris to watch the Munster semi-final between Pres and Bandon Grammar.
The conditions made it a fairly dour affair but while our kids were looking out for their cousin (he didn’t get on), I was aghast at the state of the bazzers, the creases, the combovers and coiffures. Gentlemen, control yourselves please.
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