Men in bibs drive Ireland effort to be world's best
Six Nations meeting forced fringe men to appreciate benefits of pushing starters
There are many strands and a couple of secrets to Ireland's recent success and yesterday Jack Conan revealed another layer of the path Joe Schmidt laid to a glorious 2018.
Before a ball was kicked, the coach and his players held a meeting to discuss how they could become the best team in the world and one element they felt they could improve on was their training-ground performance.
The Leinster No 8 wants to be a starter, but has largely been contained to a fringe role all year - starting the two wins over Italy and the series decider in Australia, while coming off the bench against Wales and in the second Test Down Under.
Ever present in the squad, his role in the week where he wasn't involved was to park his disappointment and impersonate the opposition player in his position in the build-up.
Each week, assistant coach Richie Murphy takes a XV of players who are unlikely to be involved at the weekend and puts them up against the expected starters, running a game-plan along the lines of the one the opposition will run.
It is probably easier said than done and Conan admitted that missing out was a tough thing to take, but there is a drive within the Irish set-up to put the collective ahead of the individual.
"At the end of the day, you have to put your ego to one side and want the team to do well rather than your individual self," Conan, who last weekend fill the role of All Black flanker Liam Squire, said. "You take it on the chin. It's disappointing not to be involved but you have to add to the lads around you.
"We spoke early in the year, during the Six Nations, about how we could be the best team in the world and one of the challenges that was laid down was that even the lads that weren't involved - the bibs, as we call them, the non-XV - that we were bringing another level, another intensity.
International Rugby Newsletter
"They're constantly testing the lads that are getting the chance, instead of having 15 or 20 lads p***ed off that they aren't playing; they're adding to it, they're bringing a new intensity, they're bringing line-speed in 'D'; they're on the ball when it comes to attack, are sharp and all the drills are spot on.
"So, the starting team need to be better and better collectively as the campaign grows. That is the sign of a good team, that even when you are frustrated you still work hard for each other to push the lads around you to be better."
Ireland tape all their training sessions and go through full video reviews and skills and kicking coach Murphy explained that the men in bibs receive just as much attention as the starters as part of the process.
"There is an onus probably out onto the players from the coaches. But in the end, they are the guys who have to be able to deliver that through the week in training," he said. "They would be highlighted. If things aren't where they need to be, they will get highlighted just as much as the guys who would be in the team.
"I think it's probably a little bit two-fold. The guys that have come into the panel over the last couple of years and know that they are not going to play, they know they want to be a part of something that is obviously going quite well.
"They drive themselves in many ways but if guys aren't coming up to the level that is expected of them, they will be told, like any of the players that are starting."
This week, Schmidt is expected to field a much-changed starting XV for the final game of the window against the United States at a sold-out Aviva Stadium.
The side will feature a group of hungry players in unfamiliar combinations and, like when they struggled for cohesion against Italy in Chicago, it will be a challenge to keep performance levels high.
"We would very much be of the view that our team has always been about the collective. It's not about the individuals that are within it," Murphys said. "One of the things that we would strive for is that, that it is seamless. That you come into an environment, you come into both attack and defence that you understand what your role is within that. And that you seamlessly go into that situation.
"Some of the combinations maybe won't have played together before but everyone understands the philosophy of our defence and the philosophy of our attack and what we are trying to achieve. So as long as they can buy into that and they work together, they will solve the problems that they need to on the pitch."
From a player's point of view, Conan is eager to get involved. "Joe started off the week by saying that this isn't just a chance to relax after such a big occasion that was beating the All Blacks at home," the No 8 said.
"It's an opportunity for other lads who are getting a chance this weekend to show their frustrations at not playing in the last few weeks and to make sure they're the lads bringing the energy and driving this week on.
"If I get a shot this weekend it's a good opportunity to show that I was frustrated to not have played as much as I would have liked. I think it's fuel for the rest of the year as well.
"These lads are chomping at the bit, they are fired out, so I don't think complacency is going to be a problem. This is a great opportunity for lads who were annoyed (last week) to put their hand up and show, if you pick me, I could do this or that."
That's what keeps the starters on their toes and drives the kind of performances we saw last Saturday.