Ireland’s bid for Grand Slam glory sees them travel to Twickenham on Saturday for their Six Nations finale with England.
Victory for Joe Schmidt’s side would secure only a third clean sweep in Irish rugby history, with tournament success already secured for the third time in the last five years.
One man who knows a thing or two about Grand Slam glory is former British & Irish Lions flanker Martyn Williams, who won two in his career with Wales. Here, he gives Alex Bywater his thoughts on Ireland, why they can down England, and why Schmidt is now up there with the best coaches in world rugby
Alex Bywater: Are Ireland deserving winners of this year’s Six Nations?
Martyn Williams: Ireland are the most efficient team in the competition by far. They are incredibly well coached by Joe Schmidt and that shines through on the field. They just look so well drilled whenever you watch them and they’re guided by the best half-back pairing in world rugby. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been outstanding in this Six Nations.
Q: What makes Ireland so good?
MW: When I look at Ireland I see a team with such impressive strength-in-depth. If you look at their options at outside centre, that’s shown just how well-stocked they are. Robbie Henshaw started the tournament there before getting injured against Italy.
Chris Farrell came in and was man-of-the-match in the win over Wales and with him out, Garry Ringrose has slotted straight back in. Most other nations would kill for those options.
Q: Some people say Ireland aren’t the most stylish of teams. Is that jealousy?
MW: They are 100% deserved winners of the tournament because they have been the most consistent. A lot of people are saying Ireland maybe don’t play the sexiest brand of rugby, but they’ve still scored 17 tries in four games. That’s an average of more than four a game which is not bad, is it?
They’ve had three bonus-point wins from four games and that shows just how clinical they are.
Their victory over Wales was a perfect example of that, because every time they attacked in the 22, you got the feeling they were going to score. In some ways I see a lot of comparisons between Wales and Ireland.
Wales have been criticised for not playing the best rugby in the past, but the one difference is that Ireland are winning on a regular basis. At the highest level it’s all about establishing a successful game plan and I don’t think Joe or his players will give a damn what anyone else is saying so long as they keep having success.
As an ex-player now, I look back and think I wouldn’t have cared if I’d won matches 3-0 or 6-0, so long as I had success. Some of the abuse Ireland have had for their style has been unfair, because they have entertained and played some attacking rugby.
Q: What’s the secret behind Joe Schmidt’s magic?
MW: The thing about Joe is he’s won three of the last five Six Nations and now he has the chance of a Grand Slam.
When I speak to ex-Irish players who worked under him, the one thing they always say is that his attention to detail is just incredible. When Ireland beat South Africa away, Joe made five or six changes for the next game.
That shows he’s always thinking of the bigger picture and it has paid off now when you look at their strength-in-depth. The positive Ireland have over England is Joe, because he can control how often his best players play, when they rest, and when they train.
The centrally contracted system is a big benefit to them and with England, Eddie Jones doesn’t quite have the same luxury, even with such a large player base.
That has its advantages, but to get that control in the first place, you have to win games. Joe is clearly doing that and the biggest compliment I can give Ireland is to say they are efficient.
Every player in their squad knows what’s expected of them and they’ve got a fantastic mix of old and younger players. Joe has rightly been loyal to guys like Rob Kearney and Rory Best, but at the same time the next generation is coming through in Dan Leavy, Jacob Stockdale and others.
It’s a great blend and from the outside looking in, the whole Irish system looks like such a well-oiled machine. Leinster sum that up because they could field two sides and it would be difficult to pick the best one.
Ireland have beaten everybody under Joe including New Zealand and it’s hard to argue with that. For me he’s up there with the best coaches in the world.
Q: How good are Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton?
MW: For me they’re the best half-back pairing in the world, better than Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett.
That’s a big call, but if you look at their game they offer absolutely everything. Everyone talks about their tactical kicking game and it is superb, but both are threats with ball in hand and they’re physical too.
Both of them aren’t afraid to get involved in the breakdown and it’s like Ireland have five back-rowers on the field with them there. The one big issue with Ireland is how they’d cope if they weren’t there.
I’d never wish injury on any player, but there’s nobody to touch them in the Ireland squad. They’re absolutely indispensible to Joe’s machine.
Q: If you could take one Ireland player to put in the Wales side, who would it be?
MW: It would have to be Johnny Sexton. I think Keith Earls is absolutely sensational by the way, but Johnny provides the all-round game at 10 Wales are crying out for. Dan Biggar isn’t far off Johnny’s level, but he’s not there yet.
Q: Can Ireland beat England?
A: Ireland can definitely beat England, but the biggest thing in the Six Nations now is just how difficult it is to win away from home. After England’s last two games it will sound obvious, but Ireland have to target the breakdown.
England are really struggling with their attacking game and at the contact area and that has shown against Scotland and France.
It’s going to be a fascinating match up and Ireland will really focus on the breakdown.
They smashed Wales there and Joe has so many options in that area. Leavy, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander are top-class there and even Bundee Aki offers a similar threat as a centre.
England’s confidence is going to be low going into this one, so the first 10 minutes is going to be key. If England get a good start, it will be difficult for Ireland to chase the game away from home. That’s exactly what happened to Wales.
If Ireland start well, they’ll have the momentum and they’re more than capable then of going on to win.
Q: You won two Grand Slams with Wales. How do Ireland approach Saturday’s game?
A: Ireland have already won the Championship, but this is a different sort of mindset. If you’ve lost one game early in the tournament and go on to win it, everyone is delighted.
When you’ve won four from four and then lose the Grand Slam game, you’re going to be devastated.
For Ireland this weekend it’s the Grand Slam or nothing. Of course it’s a great achievement to win the title again, but everything relies on them making it a clean sweep.
St Patrick’s Day all points to one hell of a day for them. The key thing for Ireland this week is managing that level of expectation.
At this stage of the tournament most of the physical work is done, so it’s more about staying cool and not getting wound up too early in the week.
In that position you’ve got to try and remain calm and it’s here that the senior players like Best and Rob Kearney stand up. Ireland haven’t won a Grand Slam since 2009, so it’s a new experience for a lot of these guys.
If they don’t let the emotion get to them, they’ve got what it takes to make it five from five.
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