Simon Easterby insists Ireland will not be drawn into a war of words or indulge in any mind games with their Welsh counterparts before the countries meet in round four of the Six Nations in Cardiff tomorrow week.
Warren Gatland has been known to launch the odd verbal grenade prior to crucial games, never more so than in 2009 when he claimed Welsh players disliked the Irish more than any of the other home nations. His assistant, Shaun Edwards, fashioned his own teaser prior to the last round of fixtures when calling for the banning of the choke tackle, a tactic pioneered by Ireland back in 2011.
Easterby knows both men well given his long stint in the principality with the Scarlets and, like all the regional coaches, he spent time in the Welsh camp on the invitation of the national team management.
“It’s something that some guys like to do and others don’t,” he said of their occasional tendency to fan the flames. “That’s just part and parcel of it. If you get too distracted by that then you take your eye off the ball. So, we’ll just carry on with our job, keep focused and hopefully that will translate through to the players. They know the enormity of the situation now, building up after the England victory there’s going to be huge attention on this fixture. Wales have put themselves back into the mix as well. It’s built up nicely.”
Easterby was Mr Diplomacy himself yesterday. Wales’ strong home record in the championship — just two defeats in 10 games — was lauded. So too their defeat of France with what he labelled a half-hour “blip” against England costing them a 3-0 record identical to Ireland’s.
His admiration for Gatland was hardly any less pronounced.
“Well, he picked me first for Ireland and I’d say he obviously knew what he was looking for in a potential international player,” he laughed. “His record speaks for itself. Whether with Wasps, with Wales or the Lions, he knows how to win matches.
“He’s got a great coaching team around him and he has a number of world-class players in that set-up that are real genuine game breakers at the highest level. He’s got a pretty good set-up going on there. That whets the appetite for our boys and for us as coaches to know that we are going over there and how much we have to get right to get a result.”
The odds of that looked better yesterday on the basis of the reduced 17-man squad’s open training session at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast although the prognosis on Jonathan Sexton was distinctly middle of the road. Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne, who suffered concussions against England last Sunday, have passed return-to-play protocols and took a full part in training while Jamie Heaslip was active but sat out anything approximating contact in light of his back injury.
“He won’t take any contact yet,” said Easterby of Heaslip.
Sexton appeared on the sideline midway through the one-hour session after last Sunday’s scan on the hamstring injury that had forced him out of the 19-9 win over England after just 52 minutes. Though the injury was described as minor, Easterby was cagey discussing whether the playmaker returns to training and on his expected status come Saturday week in Cardiff, though his absence from Racing Metro duties this weekend will help his rehab schedule.
What that means is the 10 will not have to play five times in as many weekends after a 12-week absence due to concussion protocols, even if such a scenario may serve to pique a man always happier when playing.
“Johnny wants to play as much as he can, but I think he is probably frustrated he had to come off at the weekend with injury and he will want to be doing what he can to get it right,” said Easterby. “He is in the right place in getting his hamstring right. Hopefully by the beginning of next week we’ll allow him to train fully for the Welsh week but a hamstring is a difficult one.”
Meanwhile England centre Jonathan Joseph says he would find it “difficult” to flourish if he was playing in an Ireland Test side. Former London Irish flyer Joseph is adamant he will only reach his full potential in teams that crave ball-in-hand rugby.
“Ha! That’s a difficult one,” said Joseph, when asked how he would handle playing in a team that kicks the ball 44 times a match, as Ireland did to defeat England.
“I like to have my hands on the ball, exploit space and move defenders around.
“That’s why I play rugby ultimately. Other teams like different things, they work for them: they executed it well on the day and it worked out for them.”
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