From Eddie Jones’ crass comments to World Rugby’s removal of assistant referee Marius van der Westhuizen, there has not been a dull moment in the build-up to Ireland’s bid for Grand Slam glory at Twickenham.
No wonder Joe Schmidt yesterday admitted he would settle for a 3-0 win over England if that is what it would take to get his team, already NatWest 6 Nations champions for 2018, over the line and take their place in history.
South African official van der Westhuizen was yesterday relieved of his duties as one of Australian referee Angus Gardner’s assistants for tomorrow’s championship finale after World Rugby decided his involvement in an England training session was unacceptable during the build-up to a Test match of this magnitude.
He was replaced by Nigel Owens just two hours after Ireland head coach Schmidt had expressed surprise at the South African’s attendance at the English session but fully backed van der Westhuizen’s integrity and suitability to conduct his duties at Twickenham.
“That was a bit of a surprise,” Schmidt said of the incident as he answered questions following the naming of his matchday squad at Carton House yesterday.
“I’m sure in retrospect people are probably thinking it may not have been the best thing to do.
“I know Marius, and I’d have no hesitation in standing by his integrity. I don’t think it will affect his decision-making. So we’d still have faith in him as an official on Saturday.”
It was also a rough day in the England camp with head coach Eddie Jones spending parts of his team announcement press conference repeating his unreserved apology to the people of Ireland and Wales following his disrespectful comments on a video clip that went viral.
By contrast, Schmidt had the luxury at his media session of concentrating on what made him confident about the team he had selected to storm the Twickenham bastion, try to inflict the first home defeat of Jones’ tenure, maintain their newly attained number two position in the world rankings, and become the first Ireland side since 2009 to win the Grand Slam.
There is just one change to the Ireland starting XV within the same matchday 23 which secured the championship a week in advance with a 28-8 bonus-point win over Scotland last Saturday. It comes at lock, where Iain Henderson moves off the bench to start alongside rookie James Ryan in the second row, relegating Devin Toner to the bench.
That is a repeat of the decision Schmidt made a year ago, when he picked a side that would deny England a Grand Slam at the Aviva Stadium on the last day of the 2017 championship, when the head coach was impressed by the character of his players in bouncing back from a difficult campaign to claim second place in the table.
“Those characters who demonstrated that are still heavily involved. We’re missing some of them and the guys who’ve come in have demonstrated a similar level of commitment, and the ability to be accurate and stay tuned in during those real pressure moments that happen in these really big Test matches.
“So that gives me a bit of confidence, but it’s always tempered in these really big games. We could actually play really well. I remember four years ago we went to England (and lost 13-10), and I felt it was our best performance of the Six Nations, and one of the greatest ironies for me was that when we won that (2014) championship it was described as four super performances, and just that one poor performance against England.
“When we looked at it, who were up against it and how well we performed, for us it was probably our best performance, and one of the things you don’t get safeguarded by is the level of your performance when you’re playing against a really good team. Because if Anthony Watson or Jonny May or Elliot Daly slip away, they’re gone. They’re too quick. If Mako Vunipola doesn’t get put down in the first tackle, you are going to be under pressure. Kyle Sinckler the same, the ball carry they bring.
“That line-out pressure they got on the French, that’s massive, not just the ones that they stole, but the pressure they put on the ones that the French got; then they struggled to get access into the game.
“I’ve no doubt that that’s a similar type of thing they will try to do to us. Not only does it have to be a really good performance. Even Sir Alex Ferguson said ‘you want to put all those good things together and then you just need an ounce of luck when it comes to those really big games’.”
Schmidt said he is expecting a high-tempo game that would challenge two teams “desperate” to win. A week ago, before facing Scotland, he had said dreaming was not productive and he was sticking to that on the eve of what could be his greatest coaching achievement.
“I don’t know about the players, but I would be very much a glass half-full person.
“I get excited about the group we have and how hard we work, but I’d be very balanced from the perspective of being a pragmatist at the same time.
“There is no point in dreaming beyond this Saturday, because this Saturday is a finite point for us where a number of things have to happen and go right.
“I wouldn’t say that you can control that emotional rollercoaster that preparing a high-level sports team kind of engenders, because there are times where you inevitably imagine the worst case scenario.
“A potential opportunity that has only been done twice before, I’d be more motivated and scared by that than thinking about how fantastic it would be to do something that would be another step for this group into kind of stretching themselves beyond what they’ve done before.”
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