Tuesday 16 July 2019

‘The players must make it their own’

Scrum-half from hallowed 2009 side O'Leary calls on current crop to end outstanding campaign on a high

Declan Kidney celebrates Ireland's Grand Slam success in Cardiff nine years ago. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Kidney celebrates Ireland's Grand Slam success in Cardiff nine years ago. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The last time Ireland had secured a championship title before having a tilt at a Grand Slam was in 1982; the priorities were slightly different back then.

For many young and old, the league table meant relatively little; the Triple Crown was the desirous feat and, for the first time since 1949, the Irish had achieved it.

Not everyone was entirely delirious; Moss Keane had been anticipating a lengthy Currow crowning celebration; a king in his own Kingdom.

His despair was palpable when informed there would be neither crown nor medallion.

"We went to all this trouble and they won't even give us a shagging medal?"

A Slam was possible but there was a month until Ireland would travel to Paris; in the amateur days, a lot could happen in a month.

Win-less France restored some wise old heads and dished out their habitual trouncing but the Irish were sated.

These days feel eerily familiar; unlike 2009, when absolutely everything was on the line - until the final minute - this year Ireland are champions but they have yet to attend their coronation.

And as Jonathan Sexton reminded us, even the mythical Triple Crown remains unclaimed.

They must defeat England in Twickenham to claim just a third Grand Slam in Irish rugby history; there are no medals for a Slam either but this squad desperately covet the feat.

There will be a trophy and championship coin available whatever the result but Ireland will be desperately keen to avoid sheepishly parading the spoils of war should they lose their final battle.

"Apart from Rory Best and Rob Kearney, this Irish team don't know what it is like to win a Grand Slam," says Tomás O'Leary, who does.

"And if Joe Schmidt and the team don't manage to do it this weekend after winning the title, they and he will see it as a failure

"The chance to do it in Twickenham in all places is probably unprecedented and that would make it all the more sweeter.

"Winning a Six Nations when you lose the final game takes the gloss off it so you might as well go out on your sword.

"From a playing point of view, you want to achieve the pinnacle and in home nations rugby that is a Grand Slam. For this group to be distinguished as a Grand Slam-winning team would be a huge motivator.

"And England will be hurting, there will be a lot of negative stuff against them in the media after the problems they've had in the campaign.

"But if you look at that team, bar maybe Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, you wouldn't pick any of their players on the Irish team.

"Ireland will want to win because lifting a trophy in Twickenham after a loss wouldn't be the highlight of their careers. But winning a Grand Slam might be."

Although Ireland won their second Slam just nine years ago, it seems like a lifetime away and even the sport was vastly different then while the manner in which they eked out the achievement was also in stark contrast to this group.

Declan Kidney admitted only months earlier that he had been shocked at the low confidence levels of a side still scarred by the nightmarish 2007 World Cup.

Bonded by the infamous Enfield summit, they resorted to a simplistic game-plan predicated upon supreme defence - the choke tackle - and a clinical ability to sniff the try-line from no distance, Brian O'Driscoll snaffling one-metre tries as if for fun.

A nation dearly hoped that the side would hold their nerve; the class of 2018 seem utterly nerveless, undertaking their business with such ruthless efficiency.

There was a huge amount of pressure because so much time had elapsed since Ireland had won the Slam and the title was on the line also on that last day against Wales," agrees O'Leary.

"It was a massive occasion and though the coaches try to shelter you from all the hype and the build-up, you could sense the expectation and the sheer hope invested by everyone. That was the thing,

"Now there is almost an inevitability of this Irish team achieving success. Almost routine. People expect a bonus-point win against Scotland and it happens. People are waiting to add up the tries and see how much you are going to score and perform.

"With us, it was different. There was always the possibility that it might go badly wrong and we wouldn't be able to deliver. It was new territory for us whereas success is now almost standard for this team.

"I don't remember all the stats but we definitely weren't as free-scoring. We didn't have the attacking threat or the gilt-edged sharpness that this team has.

"We were more focused on defence and being solid compared to this team but rugby has totally changed even in just 10 years.

"How the game is refereed and where teams can attack is completely different. Teams can hold on to the ball for longer periods and the longer you have the ball the more opportunities you have to attack. It's chalk and cheese.

"We were blunt but it was fit for purpose and good for the time. I don't think anyone cared because we were getting results.

"If Ireland only scored three tries from a yard out last Saturday there might have been a lot of criticism of Joe's team because there seems to be much more demand and expectation that the team not only win but win with some style and ease."

In the week leading into the Welsh game in Cardiff, Ireland also knew they could win the title, if not the Slam, once they didn't lose by a certain number of points.

Kidney told his players this repeatedly; if they were 12 points down, late on, and got a penalty, they were to take the points and spurn the corner. The players respectfully gave up listening.


"We weren't worried about permutations."

Then, as now, the win was all that mattered.

That Slam was a crowning glory but Ireland failed to back it up thereafter; it smacked of a side reaching a height whereas this year's model has the potential for far more growth.

"A lot can change in a year or a year and a half so the Grand Slam will be the focus. Look at where England are after the last two years, suddenly they are worried about a World Cup.

"Ireland have shown they can lose players, in the last World Cup they struggled when they lost players.

"So even though the focus is on Saturday, it is a huge benefit to have the strength in depth. Ireland are not miles ahead of the pack but in terms of strength in depth they are in a pretty good place.

"This squad is far more fluid, they have been down a few Lions and key players but there are no worries about sticking players on the bench like Devin Toner or Iain Henderson whereas we rotated just once and had no injuries.

"The only thing is we don't know how strong we are underneath Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray in the real white heat of battle so the summer tour will be important in developing that back-up.

"Thankfully Conor and Johnny have been able to perform so strongly and consistently so we haven't needed that. They're in a really good place and Saturday should confirm that."

Irish Independent

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