Ireland primed and eager to justify the optimism

A new coach with a professional approach has a nation expecting victory against Scotland tomorrow. David Hughes reports
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Is that the discernible sound of optimism in the air? A new coach, a new attitude, and a couple of preparatory wins have prompted a rash of bets on the Five Nations' Championship and a belief that Twickenham on St Patrick's weekend will constitute a Triple Crown decider. This is worrying. This is Ireland.

We have been here before as well, most noticeably last season with premature talk of a legendary front-row in the making. Under-prepared, Ireland under- achieved, and the only mantle they ended up playing for was the wooden spoon in the Cardiff Arms Park denouement to another anti-climactic campaign.

However, this time things might just be different, and Ireland might be worth taking seriously if only because they seem to be taking themselves seriously. For starters, it is arguable that no other team needed the onset of the professional more.

With their conservative Union bosses dragged along, kicking and screaming, into the new era, suddenly Irish rugby began catching up with its counterparts and remunerating its international players. The agreement reached last week enables each of the 30 squad members to earn from pounds 7,500 up to pounds 30,000.

Now both the practice, as well as the theories, are professional, which is no less than Ireland's first professional, and overseas coach, demands. Murray Kidd, the 42-year-old from Auckland who has coached at club level in his native country, France and Ireland, was a surprise choice last October to succeed Gerry Murphy after Bob Dwyer and John Connolly had rejected the IRFU's covetous advances. A one-season contract was less than a wringing endorsement.

In his one stint at provincial level last season, Kidd lasted less than a year at unfashionable King Country due, in part, to the players' discontentment with his stringent training regime. On the other side of the coin, he was fitter than most of them.

Though known as a tough taskmaster, the Irish players have responded to Kidd's more intense training sessions. "I do things that the players weren't used to. Our training sessions are reasonably short, generally not more than an hour and a half, but they know they've been out there for an hour and a half."

One of Kidd's biggest achievements was to secure a hastily arranged Five Nations' New Year warm-up in Atlanta. Leinster had played Cardiff the day before yet, upon arrival, the squad went through a fierce two-hour session. The players were told that to opt out would, in Kidd's own words, be to wimp out.

The benefits of the rigorous regime were almost immediate in the hard- earned win over the United States. "It instilled a kind of confidence," according to Neil Francis, outstanding in Leinster's 10-match winning sequence this season and widely acclaimed as man of the match in that sodden triumph over the United States. "If it was the team that was playing last year, it might have been different."

With the equally well-respected John Mitchell installed as the forwards coach (dropped passes result in punitive sprinting drills) the fitness of the team shone through against a gargantuan American pack (average weight - over 17 stone). Likewise, Ireland had been noticeably fitter and more focused in disposing of Fiji last November, and were clearly developing a pattern of play based on ball retention rather than the age- old Irish ploy of bootin', bitin' and bollockin'.

Even in the scarcely playable conditions in Atlanta, Eric Elwood hardly kicked a ball at outside-half before the sodden surface and ball dictated a change of tack. For once declining to adopt the perennial underdog's tag so beloved of the Irish, Kidd admits his team have "a better than even chance in our home games" against Scotland and Wales, but still desires victory with at least a degree of style.

"I think those are games we've got to go out and attack. I don't want to not lose them, I want to go out and win them."

The selection of the slick-passing Sale scrum-half Chris Saverimutto this season was a clear statement of intent. The recall of Eric Elwood for the States' game and his retention ahead of Paul Burke for the forthcoming joust with Scotland may seem a contradiction, but Kidd also places great store in sound tackling. With one eye on the straight-running Ian Jardine and Scott Hastings, Elwood was preferred.

Bearing in mind Doddie Weir's eclipse of Francis four years ago, similarly there was a horses-for-courses thinking behind Peter Clohessy's recall at the expense of the unlucky Paul Wallace. Pat Whelan, the team manager, makes no bones about it. "Clohessy's abrasiveness was an important consideration, because we believe this is something Scotland will recognise."

With Clohessy adding more protection to Francis, Ireland's line-out has been further strengthened by the recall of the 21-year-old lock Jeremy Davidson to No 6. This leaves David Corkery as the shortest of the pack's back five at 6ft 4in.

Better organised, fitter, more focused, now all Ireland need is the confidence of a first win over Scotland since 1988. With a month's gap to come before the daunting trip to Parc des Princes, where Ireland have never won, the Scottish game is very much the pivotal one of the season.

Bizarrely, given only Terry Kingston of this team has sampled victory over the Scots, a nation expects. This is indeed dangerous, but for once the Irish may be justified in their eternal optimism.