Momentum is the great intangible influence within the Six Nations, and as Ireland begin to pick up speed approaching Fortress Twickenham, their coach Joe Schmidt is already guarding against the enemy from within his players’ heads.
Victory in south-west London on Saturday week will earn Ireland a Triple Crown and set them on a course for a Grand Slam. Having already scored 54 points in two games while outmuscling the title holders at Lansdowne Road, Schmidt is fully aware that the famed good nature of the Irish public will now turn a shade greedier.
“It’s the next game, so it’s the biggest challenge [of my career]. That’s the way it is. As the next game it is massive though,” explained the New Zealander. “It’s huge, and I think part of what we have to manage now is player anxiety because they’re going to be made well aware of the public expectation.
“We want to actually develop but that expectation does build anxiety because you know to meet that expectation on the day you’re going to have to be bang-on and there are a lot of variables that will make that difficult to do. And that’s our challenge.”
Many observers fancied this fixture between the two Celtic heavyweights to play out as one of the games of the tournament; sadly Ireland’s efforts suffocated a one-dimensional Wales and we must now put some stock into hoping that the Anglo-Irish affair will provide a contest of quality and drama. For all their power and might, Wales failed to exert any sustained pressure in Dublin and while they appeared not to possess a Plan B, coach Warren Gatland argued that the Irish tactics were also plain and rudimentary.
“In fairness to Ireland they’ve played very effective rugby, they played in close, they were very competitive at the breakdown. What were the kicking stats? [46 to 27]. They’ve kicked the leather off it but it’s been effective,” said Gatland. “They played a lot of one-pass rugby and potentially sometimes in the past we’ve been criticised for not playing rugby.”
Asked if Schmidt’s tactics had surprised him, Gatland replied: “Yeah, possibly. Yeah, I think that was effective… I can’t remember any occasion where they’ve moved the ball through the backline to try and attack.”
You could chalk that up as win for Schmidt over his compatriot, then. However, the Ireland coach subscribes to the mantra that the devil is always in the detail and he admitted that forecast conditions of swirling rain had impacted on his game plan. However, dry conditions at kick-off didn’t force any major rethink because Schmidt was plainly aware that the best way to counter the Welsh blitz defence was to avoid it by kicking and mauling.
Will that be the plan at HQ? It’s hard to say because already it is becoming clear that, although Schmidt is aiming to install the fundamentals that brought so much success at Leinster, his approach to Test match rugby is very much tailored towards the strengths and weaknesses of Ireland’s opposition.
Gatland mentioned that Ireland drew from a certain amount of emotion, and while it is a dangerous commodity to invest in, the Irish will not lack for it against the sight of the Red Rose, which crushed them 30-9 in 2012 and upset them in Dublin last year.
Hooker Rory Best accepted that Ireland’s rivalry with Wales and the individual disappointment for some of their Lions tourists provided the mental fuel for their ferocious efforts in the contact zones.
“I suppose that’s something else we talked about – to bring them [Wales] here into our home ground and to make sure that we made a physical statement early on; to try to see it in their eyes that after 10 minutes they knew we meant business and that we weren’t going to let our foot off the throat,” said the experienced Ulster player.
“There’s probably no greater example than the way Brian O’Driscoll played. He didn’t go out of his way to make a point, he just did what he always does and that is to play unbelievably well in the team environment to make sure that we get a performance and that ultimately we get the result. That’s what we’re about – we’re about getting performances and results,” he added.
Scorers: Ireland - Tries: Henry, Jackson. Cons: Sexton, Jackson. Pens: Sexton 4. Wales - Pen: Halfpenny.
Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble (F McFadden 61), B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, DKearney; J Sexton (P Jackson 75), C Murray (I Boss 79); C Healy (J McGrath 66), R Best ( S Cronin 73), M Ross (M Moore 55), D Toner, P O’Connell (capt, D Tuohy 65), P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.
Wales: L Halfpenny: A Cuthbert, S Williams (L Williams 17), J Roberts, G North; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins (P James 70), R Hibbard (K Owens 61), A Jones (R Jones 61), A Coombs, A Wyn Jones (J Ball 70), D Lydiate (J Tipuric 70), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Referee: W Barnes (England).