Croker ‘chokers’? , Irish pros can handle pressure, blasts Wallace

THERE is no doubt losing to France in Croke Park 13 days ago hurt this Ireland team to the core, as David Wallace confesses.

So, when the words of injured France squad member Thomas Castaignede were brought to his ear, they must have re-opened old wounds.

Castaignede implicitly described Ireland as chokers, declaring: “they have fallen short every year when it comes to the Grand Slam, and the tournament, because they don’t win the critical matches”.

Wallace, for one, isn’t impressed. “I would say that’s pretty harsh. I don’t think that’s a true reflection on how we’re going. You look at the Triple Crown game last year against England — that would dispel that idea straight away.”

Still, it may be hard for Irish supporters to accept that Ireland suffer from the weight of Grand Slam expectations in recent seasons. And this season more than others. An autumn series of sheer bliss has suddenly turned into a spring of discomfort.

Ireland look a side unable to deal with the hype and the Croke Park factor, and subsequently are producing reactive rather than proactive starts in this year’s championship, notwithstanding Rory Best’s early try against Wales.

If he is little angered by Castaignede’s words, Wallace can only say that acting professionally is the best way to deal with adversity: “As a team, as professionals, we try to remain level-headed. When the hype was there around the Autumn, we knew it was too much. You look back to the previous year and look at the Autumn Internationals. Then it was doom and gloom, but we went on to win a Triple Crown.

“Things are going to be sensationalised, it’s just keeping a level-head and knowing where you’re at; that’s part of being a professional player. Things were built up obviously and talk of Grand Slams we hadn’t won in so long. We always knew it was going to be very, very hard to do that, but we’re still in with a shout of winning the Six Nations.”

If he’s learnt anything in Munster about defeat it’s about being a hard loser and using defeat as a stimulus to greater effort next day out.

But this is no ordinary “next day out”. England are in the home of Irish sporting nationalism, and having a Grand Slam season pinched already from under their noses by the French, the pressure on Ireland to perform in this historical fixture must be enormous: “There’s always pressure there,” says Wallace. “When you’re going out to play against England, it’s always going to be a huge game. There is history here, but our job as professionals is to go out and play the game and do what we can to win the game.

“We don’t really want to get sidetracked too much by other things that are going on. Our job is on the pitch to win the game and that’s what we’ll be looking at.”

The Wallace of ‘07 is in imperious form, but, for long tracts, his international career stuttered.

Ten years ago Wallace was on that infamous Ireland A Development Tour to New Zealand and Western Samoa. Brian Ashton was at the helm. It turned out to be a quite disastrous tour, Ireland playing seven, losing six and winning one, but his memories of Ashton from those May and June months a decade ago are of a positive kind.

“He was very good,” remembers Wallace. “I remember a lot from him actually in terms of the way he perceived the game of rugby and the way it should be played. He wanted a full 15 man rugby game where each player could step into any role and fill it and wanted a wide attacking platform, wanted everyone to use the full pitch, wanted the full team spread across the pitch, so that you’re using the full width. Things like that. Again that was ten years ago and makes you feel a bit older!”

What the England coach preached then is very much in vogue now. “Just look at the way the game the game is gone — look at Marcus Horan in the front row, who has got great skill as well. Players now need to adapt to all facets of game because it’s now a game where you can’t have the forwards here and the backs there — you’ve got to able to intermingle and that’s certainly the way the game is going.”

And certainly if payers are learning to be more versatile, then the cameo of Wallace taking a lineout in front of the Cusack Stand against France has seen the return of an old facet to his game, a return to a function he was so good at as a number eight with Garryowen in the late 80’s.

“In the last few games I have tried to come around to that side of my game. I utilised it a bit there (against France). It’s something I haven’t really been known for because, as a seven, you’re usually out of the line-outs. Once it (a lineout) goes beyond a full man and you’re down to a six man, you’re out in the backs. It wouldn’t really give you much of a chance then in a lineout.

Having suffered incredible pain as Leicester sacked Thomond last month, Wallace feels this will have no bearing on the outcome of this match. That was club versus club but he feels this English team are in the ascendancy. “There certainly a team on the up again. They’re rising in form the whole time; with Wilkinson back, he adds another dimension to their game.”

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