Thursday 14 December 2017

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Low-profile Ireland are keeping their guard up

Joe Schmidt speaks with his players prior to Ireland's victory against France
Joe Schmidt speaks with his players prior to Ireland's victory against France
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IRELAND like to ease their way into a Test week and yesterday was their day to pop their head above the parapet and get a sense of what the mood is like outside their Carton House enclosure.

Keeping his own profile as low as possible, Joe Schmidt sent one of his most trusted lieutenants to the front of house in Peter O'Mahony out for the first watch and the Munster captain wasn't of a mind for engaging too much with those beyond the bubble.

Never the most garrulous of interviewees, O'Mahony sat beside team manager Mick Kearney and sighed and tutted his way through yesterday's briefing; straight-batting all-comers with a wizened look that betrayed his tender age.

Eliminator

What we learned was that Ireland are treating this Grand Slam eliminator like any other game, have plenty of respect and admiration for England and are focusing on their attention to detail while maintaining a forward-looking approach.

Schmidt's team are on the crest of a wave, unbeaten in 12 months and champions of Europe. In a World Cup year, they have a core of senior internationals who have forgotten how to lose rugby matches and command the admiration of a public desperately scrambling for tickets for a game that could have sold out the Aviva Stadium twice over.

Everyone is excited about the Irish rugby team except, it appears, the camp themselves who give the impression they'd rather play England behind closed doors.

Perhaps it's the grumbles about the team's perceived style of play that is affecting the squad's downbeat public utterances or maybe the current focus on concussion has them on high alert.

Whatever it is, the mood doesn't match the giddy atmosphere of anticipation on the outside.

"It's a strange enough feeling," O'Mahony said. "We're happy to get the wins but I don't think we have been overly happy with the performance. We have two very tough games and we have battled them out well but I don't think we have been quite as happy with our execution and our attention to detail.

"The flip side of that is it gives us plenty to work on and plenty of things to look forward to and implement. It's a mixed feeling at the moment.

"I think defences have become very good. You look at teams in the Six Nations and there's a huge amount of line speed there.

"It's quite difficult to break teams down the middle now. A lot of it has become analysis-based and trying to find little glitches in what are hugely good defences.

"They are hugely attritional games, we're staring down the barrel of another one at the weekend. There's nothing a player can do out there, we're doing our best.

"Look, we need to brush up on a few things, our attention to detail and that kind of thing but trust me the physicality and attrition out there is hugely high and intense."

Certainly, if O'Mahony's mood doesn't improve before Sunday, England are in for a rough afternoon. His game-face is well and truly fixed on.

Over at their base at Pennyhill Park, meanwhile, PR-savvy England coach Stuart Lancaster, his management team and players have been happily opening their doors to the press without fear of repercussions.

Last night, Lancaster whittled his squad down to 26. In contrast, the more guarded Schmidt belatedly named a 36-man squad that included one player who definitely won't be available this weekend in Jamie Heaslip.

Thirteen of those players are in for disappointment when the team is revealed internally today and externally on Friday. New faces Roger Wilson and Billy Holland joined up with the panel on Monday knowing their chances of inclusion are minimal.

Replacing

Instead, they'll help prepare a team that is likely to be unchanged apart from Jordi Murphy replacing Heaslip at No 8. The bench composition depends on Tommy O'Donnell's ability to recover from the concussion he suffered while playing for Munster last Saturday. He is doing the 'head injury assessment' protocols and is on track to be available.

Eoin Reddan is likely to be promoted ahead of Isaac Boss, while Luke Fitzgerald could get the nod instead of Felix Jones after being retained in camp throughout last week's trip to Galway.

"We've come up against two hugely physical teams and the reason we've won both of them is because we've matched them and gone beyond them," O'Mahony said of the campaign to date. "For me, that's the reason we've won the two games.

"That's the way the game is going. I think teams are trying to stop other teams from getting a foothold through giving them set-piece from within your own half. So it's probably as a result of the teams we've played against as well."

And so, preparations for Sunday continue behind the four walls of Ireland's impenetrable bubble. They are quite happy to allow England win the public relations battle as long as they take the spoils and few will complain if they do.

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