RBS 6 Nations
Wales v Ireland
Today: Millenium Stadium, 2.30pm
TV: RTE Two, BBC 1
And so to the Millennium Stadium, a theatre of Irish dreams coming to fruition on so many occasions, from Munster and Leinster’s Heineken Cup heroics to the Grand Slam of 2009.
Nothing will be so conclusively achieved there today but Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O’Connell are both acutely aware that high hopes and history in the making can just as easily come to a crushing halt in Cardiff.
Ireland’s victories over Italy, France and England have placed Schmidt’s team in the RBS 6 Nations driving seat heading into this weekend’s fourth round of matches and brought them to the verge of a national team record 11th successive win since the men in green last tasted defeat at Twickenham a year ago.
The success, particularly in the manner of their 19-9 dismissal of the English two weekends ago, has only served to ramp up the expectations for this team of a repeat of the glory achieved on Declan Kidney’s watch six years ago.
Which is why current head coach Schmidt on Thursday warned of the dangers of losing focus on the task at hand, beating Wales today to set up a Grand Slam-clinching final-round game in Scotland seven days hence.
Forget the winning streak, he suggested, and while you’re at it shelve the Slam talk and save the celebrations of O’Connell’s 100th cap and the 50 Irish appearances for Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy until after the championship.
Ireland are here to do a job, plain and simple.
“The possibility of a championship is maybe in the back of your mind but the way Joe prepares a team is a good way of dispelling those thoughts from your mind,” O’Connell said yesterday.
“We’d a tough review of the England game and then began to plan for Wales. If you’re not fully focused on getting those very small jobs right I don’t think you can perform.
“We’re not looking beyond even the first-half of the next game and when you’re in with a shout of winning the championship, it’s the best way to prepare, a good way to avoid distraction.”
Wales will not be passive bystanders, particularly on their home turf in front of 80,000 fans and Warren Gatland’s team will target the chance to further claw their way back into this championship after an opening-round loss in Cardiff to England.
Beating Ireland tomorrow will throw the tournament wide open and Schmidt is hoping his fellow Kiwi in the opposite coaching box is planning as positive approach to the encounter as England provided on their visit to Dublin in round three.
Welsh forwards coach Robin McBryde yesterday appeared resigned to the alternative option. Asked if the fans who have parted with their hard-earned cash to sell out the Millennium Stadium today would be treated to a spectacle of running rugby, Gatland’s coaching representative was blunt.
“I don’t know, I’m not too sure about that. There’s a lot at stake, Ireland are on course for a Grand Slam and all they’ll be looking to do is just get away from Cardiff with a win. So with regards to playing any attractive rugby, that will come second,” McBryde said ominously.
“That’s the nature of the game at the moment. That’s how teams are wearing each other down and unfortunately sometimes the spectators have got to pay a price for that.
“It’s going to be an arm wrestle for 80 minutes, that’s what we’ve prepared for and everything that goes on off the field just pales into insignificance.
It’s a big pressure game and if we can react positively to that and stay in the fight that will give us a good chance of winning.”
Both teams, the coaches insist, have the licence to thrill if the opportunity arises but the reality remains that this will be a match won and lost in the hi-intensity confrontations that will take place at the set-piece, breakdown and in the air.
Of course even arm wrestles have the potential to be enthralling and a positive outcome will be helped or hindered by referee Wayne Barnes, the official who reduced Ireland’s clash with France to a frustrating stop-start affair by awarding 25 penalties, precisely one every 3.2 minutes.
Schmidt was saying the right things about this unexpected renewal of Ireland’s acquaintance with Barnes due to the withdrawal of Steve Walsh.
“Probably a number of those (penalties in the France game) were around the scrum which was probably the disconcerting thing because we felt in that England performance if you get two positive teams you can have a really positive scrummaging contest and there were very few scrum penalties, the vast majority of scrums were played off and we just felt that it was really difficult for Wayne against France because he was trying to find solutions to a very messy area of the game.”
As to Welsh positivity in the scrum, Schmidt replied: “They are certainly working towards it. I know that in the past it has been problematic. It only took two minutes for the first scrum penalty to happen in our game last year. We’d hope that we can avoid a scrum fest or a penalty fest and I’m pretty sure they are keen to play against us.
“They have got some super players out there. They can string phases together incredibly well with the back row that they have got and I’d hope therefore the referee doesn’t have to find the solutions, the players find the solution and that it is a really good contest but it is one that teams get to play off and the ball can be kept in play.”
Opinions may differ on the style of contest we will be offered up today in Cardiff but all agree it is going to be a close-run thing. Ireland have travelled far enough down the road under Schmidt and are too close to the final destination to slip up now. They have emerged victorious in many different ways to build this run of 10 wins in a row and have enough in their armoury to find the right way to get this one over line.
History does beckon, by any means necessary.
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