Although Eddie O’Sullivan won three Triple Crowns, he always seemed to fall short of finishing top of the table, and invariably you could always point to one or two key moments.
Most notable of these was on St Patrick’s Day in 2007, when the Irish defence fell asleep in the 80th minute and allowed Roland de Marigny to snatch a late try which ultimately meant they fell short of the Championship by four agonizing points. Some would argue that it was actually Vincent Clerc’s late try in Croke Park a few weeks earlier which actually cost them that year.
Now as we all know Declan Kidney swept Ireland to Grand Slam glory at his first attempt in 2009, but have the campaigns since then been much different to those of his predecessor?
Each of them have had one “redeeming” quality – in 2010 they finished second despite an early capitulation in Paris and last season Irish fans took a crumb of comfort from emphatically denying the English a Slam on the final day after infuriating defeats to both France and Wales.
And now we have this campaign, which much like 2007 the Championship ends on Ireland’s national day, and much like 2011, their final encounter is with England. Of course any triumph at Twickenham is worth celebrating, but this one in particular will mean yet again the Irish challenge contained more positives than negatives.
But this is an English team which still has designs on the Six Nations trophy themselves and one which just notched a famous victory in Paris. Does this mean Ireland is up against it tomorrow?
Based on form so far in this Championship, I think not. In four matches Ireland have scored more tries than they did in the five matches that won the Slam in 2009 and on the defensive side of things, they managed to quickly fix the appalling leaks that helped Wales march down the field to victory in the opening game.
As for England, whatever happens Saturday Stuart Lancaster can say he had a good campaign for a rookie coach. But if you had any kind of a cynical eye, you could put all three of their victories under the magnifying glass and wonder were they as much to do with his team’s performance as they were to their opponents’.
This particularly applies to the win in Paris last Sunday. Three tries to England, all resulting from strong running straight at the heart of the French defence. I put it to you that if the Irish defensive cordon plays as it has done in recent weeks, tries will not come as easily for the home side this weekend.
Not surprisingly, the crunch battle will be in the back row. Many felt Peter O’Mahony was hard done by in being “dropped” after an impressive first start against Scotland, but what is needed is an understanding of Kidney’s thought process. Rather than studying recent form he tends to go by an “elite XV” who only get left out if they are injured. Those who fill in are merely keeping the jersey warm.
Whatever about the rights and wrongs of this mindset, it was always clear that Sean O’Brien was going to get his number 7 jersey back once fit, just as Conor Murray would get his 9 jersey back from Eoin Reddan despite the Leinster scrum-half’s try-scoring outing.
And so Ireland put out their bulky trio of Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip against their English counterparts of Croft, Robshaw and Morgan, all of whom have shown good form in this Championship. One of these six men will be keen to lay down an early marker in this contest and provided it’s deemed legal, it could well set the tone of the match.
If I were a betting man I’d back Stephen Ferris to provide that moment. He has been nothing short of an animal in this Championship, and even got redemption for the one time he supposedly went too far, ie his non-tip tackle on Ian Evans. England will certainly do all they can to find space for Manu Tuilagi to break the Irish line, but to do so they’re going to have to hope that the Ulsterman isn’t within tackling distance.
Of course when we mention Tuilagi we are reminded of his burst past Keith Earls last August in the pre-World Cup warmups. I am willing to hold up my hand and admit that I was one of those who berated him for that missed tackle and thus doubted his suitability as outside centre. In the end I feel he has done well overall, certainly not enough to keep out the jersey’s more famous owner, but enough not to make the position a liability.
When you look at the two tries Ireland have conceded in the last two weeks you can actually see how they came about – Conor Murray stripped the ball from Morgan Parra for it to fall kindly for Trinh-Duc who flipped it to Fofana and last Saturday, Richie Gray may have been unstoppable once in full flow but I’d definitely have backed Tommy Bowe to tackle him had Stuart Hogg not gotten himself between them.
So it is clear that if the Irish defence remains solid, England are going to find tries hard to come by, which means they’ll need a high penalty count to get enough points on the board to succeed. Ireland are certainly capable of providing them with that, and what’s more Owen Farrell is certainly capable of of taking advantage.
One key difference this week though is that the referee is Nigel Owens – many Irish fans feel their team’s Championship (and possibly even Grand Slam) chances have been mostly scuppered by Dave Pearson (in both Dublin and Paris) and will fully expect the Welshman to give them a fair go at the breakdown at Twickenham.
Of course Ireland will need to get their own side of the scoreboard moving and for this they will look to their Leinster half-backs Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton, and should they get themselves into the English 22 (courtesy of the back row or even the surely-Lions-favourite Rob Kearney) I can’t think of two better men to be pulling the strings – and with the right front-foot ball we all know a certain Mr TJ Bowe likes scoring against the English!
Now you are probably getting a sense from what I have written so far that I’m reasonably confident of an Irish victory, and you’d be right. One thing does worry me, though – our PR. Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney were interviewed during the week and although the resulting headlines may not represent the thrust of what they said, if I were Stuart Lancaster, I’d pin the words “England are sore losers” (Ferris) and “Ireland are much better than England” (Kearney) to their dressing-room wall on Saturday.
This may not be an English side capable of winning trophies just yet, but one thing they’ve shown is that they can be scrappy battlers, and if anything can get them fired up to raise their game it’s headlines like those. I believe the pre-match head-games to be crucial, in fact I reckon that’s where Kidney laid the groundwork for ousting Johnson this time last year, so hopefully we’re not counting the cost of those interviews at full-time on Saturday evening!
Now of course this article has made it seem like the Twickenham encounter is the most important of this weekend – I expect the Welsh may disagree! Truth be told, however, I really can’t see anything for them but a much-deserved Grand Slam triumph this weekend. France under Phillipe St Andre so far have baffled me with their approach and with yet more changes all over the park will likely struggle against Warren Gatland’s men.
Then we have the perennial play-off for the “wooden spoon” between Italy and Scotland, though the two have coaches at different stages of their tenure – Jacques Brunel will certainly get some leeway in his first campaign while Andy Robinson will surely get the boot if his side doesn’t come away from Rome with the spoils after a disappointing showing in Dublin.
And let’s not forget the Under-20 and Women’s Irish teams. Mike Ruddock knows all about winning a Grand Slam and I have a feeling that should his Irish charges do the same tonight at Adams Park he could get himself to the front of the queue to replace Declan Kidney.
Then on Saturday afternoon Irish Women’s skipper Fiona Coughlan leads out her side with the Triple Crown at stake. Who knows…had their trip to Pau been better organised maybe they could have turned their 1-point defeat into a victory and they too could be in line for a Slam.
All in all though it has been a super campaign by both squads and hopefully they will receive the proper recognition in the mainstream media whatever the outcome this weekend.
Finally, my predictions. Ireland and Italy by less than 7, Wales by more than 7. And at least one of the other Irish teams will be celebrating as well on English soil, if not both. Come on, it’s St Patrick’s weekend, how can I not back the boys in green!
That’s it for me for another week, back to Pro12 action next time round, enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP
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