Ireland’s Rob Herring, Jordi Murphy and Rob Kearney celebrate as referee Paul Williams signals a knock on against Australia during the second Test at the AAMI Park in Melbourne. Phogograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Schmidt has spent three years rebuilding a squad of sufficient depth for the job at hand

Australia’s Israel Folau   is tackled by Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton in his side’s 18-9 Test victory on Sunday. Photograph:   Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

To genuinely compete for the 2019 World Cup, we need 34 Test-standard players

Leinster players celebrate after the win over Racing 92. Three years after my career has ended at least I know the changing room will stay lodged in my mind until I’m old and grey.  Photograph:  Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

It’s fleeting but being together in a trophy-winning dressing room will be cherished forever

Fear of further failure fuelled Leinster’s Heineken Cup victory over Leicester in 2009. File photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Parallels with 2009 abound and leaders from that campaign should give side the edge

Dan Leavy carries to score during Leinster’s win over Saracens. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Defeat to Connacht will be a mere footnote if Cullen’s men deliver on the grand stage

Joey Carbery in action for Leinster: it looks like  Carbery or  Ross Byrne  will be coerced into leaving their boyhood team. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Leinster won’t remain best in Europe if they have to solve Munster and Ulster’s problems

Gordon D’Arcy: I don’t think pressure will alter the way Sexton operates, do you? Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Provinces have opted for very different preparations ahead of semi-final assignments

Dan Leavy: his performances have been sensational both for Leinster and Ireland. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Bringing your best to the match-day arena is the sole objective of any training method

Andrew Conway takes advantage of Toulon’s lack of defensive discipline to cut through for the crucial try at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Multitalented Toulon relaxed for one vital moment and Conway made them pay

 Peter O’Mahony will be central to Munster’s chances against Toulon. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Rugby may be the people’s game now, but in a sports-mad country people are fickle

Ireland players celebrate the Grand Slam.  It’s important after scaling the mountain top to relax your mind for the way back down because there’s always another peak on the horizon. Photograph:  Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Ireland are top of the mountain but can improve by giving fringe players their fling in Australia

 Scotland’s Blair Kinghorn tackled by Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony. I’m confident this Irish group – under the leadership of Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, CJ Stander and O’Mahony – understand what needs to be done. Photograph: Óisin Keniry/Inpho

This game is already decided. One of the camps has already struck the right chord

Johnny Sexton looks after his pack in a way Finn Russell does not. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Ireland’s halfbacks have the patience and experience to know when to pull the trigger

Jacob Stockdale runs in his second try against Wales at the  Aviva Stadium.  Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Rise to prominence of Porter, Farrell, Leavy and Aki a huge plus for Irish rugby

Any potential assumption by Wales that Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki are a smash and bash partnership  will play nicely into their hands. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Munster man has all the tools to play No 13 in a major Test match

Bundee Aki and Johnathan Sexton are forming a blossoming relationship for Ireland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Blossoming Murray-Sexton-Aki axis adds an exciting dimension to Joe Schmidt’s side

Johnny Sexton  stood above the entire stadium and identified a way to cover the crucial 15 metres Ireland needed to reach the edge of his range to kick the drop-goal. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Sheridan

Johnny Sexton’s brilliance followed the correct decisions made under pressure

Ulster captain Rory Best during the defeat against Wasps. The club remain too reliant on the hooker and Iain Henderson. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Province will not achieve success unless it develops coherent strategy

Leinster’s Jordan Larmour scores the first try of the game against Ulster. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Harmonious culture at Leinster will give him everything he needs to develop his rare talent

Gordon D’Arcy in action against Northampton in 2013. “I know the precise moment we lost that night at a packed Aviva. After the warm-up, before the kick-off. I saw it happening. The body language was wrong, too many smiles.” Photograph: Billy Stickland

Wounded Tigers and chastened Chiefs will ask real questions of provinces this weekend

Peter O’Mahony is a cultural driver, the rightful heir to follow Gaillimh, Axel and O’Connell. The IRFU needs to find the figure that makes Pete feel valued. Photograph:  Billy Stickland/Inpho

From my own contract negotiations I know the IRFU could be playing a very dangerous game

Ireland in action against Fiji at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin last weekend. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Ignore empty cliches – Ireland have plenty beneath the surface to make us unbeatable

South African head coach Allister Coetzee cut the image of someone on work experience. Maybe he knows he’s leaving too. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Not enough being done to nurture Irish born players ahead of recruiting overseas

Bundee Aki at the Ireland rugby squad training centre at Carton House, Co Kildare. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Saturday should show that Bundee Aki is a central figure in Joe Schmidt’s thinking

 The big screen in the Aviva Stadium at the announcement in 2016 of Ireland’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Photograph:  Billy Stickland/Inpho

Seems we competed on emotional level knowing we didn’t stand a chance on stadiums or profit

Mick Galway with a young Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara during Amhrán na bhFiann prior to a Six Nations game in 2000. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

If they don’t drive the culture, the team suffers – as on the Lions tour in 2005

James Ryan played in the Ireland v England  2016 Junior World Cup final. Photograph: Gary Carr/INPHO.

Constant rotation producing the likes of Jacob Stockdale for the national side

Keith Earls scores a try despite Adam Byrne’s best efforts. Byrne will play for Ireland sooner rather than later. No harm getting a lesson from  Earls along the way. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Game plan to defeat Munster was tailored with one eye on starving Vern Cotter’s side

Celebrating with my team-mates after scoring against France in  2009. There is a story behind my big happy head that  my kids can tell people about because now it is etched into their childhood. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

All I needed to remember from the age of 18 to 35 was to bring my boots. Now life begins again

New Zealand’s inside centre Ngani Laumape passes the ball during the third  Test match against the  British and Irish Lions: player dropped a number of balls in the series decider. Photograph:   Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images

The tourists drew the series by tapping into unbelievable levels of determination

Aaron Smith is the source of the All Blacks attacking ploys. If he is dancing diagonally forward from ruck to ruck, taking two steps before torpedoing another hard runner into soaking red jerseys then the series is all but gone.

Lions’ ability to cut off the supply of quick ball at source laid the foundation to Wellington win

British and Irish Lions team huddle with Warren Gatland during the training. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Warren Gatland will remind his squad that the Lions have superior game managers

Maro Itoje  has to feature somewhere at some stage against the All Blacks. Photograph:  Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Rather than quick ball, Lions seek contact, which is tough to resource

Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Sexton. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Early games will see Warren Gatland’s charges working on their combinations

Tyler Bleyendaal has done well this season but now, on Saturday, he’ll be asked to close out a final, to stamp a performance on the stage where everyone remembers. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

If any team deserves to end the season with success then it is Munster

The Crusaders did an excellent job of nullifying the threat of Beauden Barrett during their Super Rugby clash on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images

Tourists can go a long way to stopping the All Blacks if they can stop the Hurricanes outhalf

Tommy Seymour, Maro Itoje and Tadhg Furlong. Itoje and Furlong are the sort of men who can help the modern Lions reach new heights.  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

And facing the All Blacks in New Zealand is the ultimate test for any rugby team

Felipe Contepomi celebrates with team mates Denis Hickie (left) and Will Green after their victory in Toulouse in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2006. ‘There were a lot of similarities between that game and Leinster’s loss to Clermont.’ Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Battling defeat in Lyon can do for current side what Toulouse victory did for 2006 crop

Clermont’s Morgan Parra and Luke McGrath of Leinster. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Munster lacked impact off their bench and squad depth to cope without Conor Murray

 Morgan Parra:  playing as well as he ever has and steers the ship for  Clermont Auvergne. Photograph: Photograph:  David Rogers/Getty Images

A Munster win in Dublin seems more logical than a Leinster win over Clermont in Lyon

Joey Carbery’s presence makes Johnny Sexton a far more dangerous proposition. And vice versayan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Leinster and Munster attacks now include second playmaker in what is vital evolution

Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy supported by Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell during the 2011 Rugby World Cup match against USA. Photo: Bill Stickland/Inpho

Leinster and Munster must both go to The Well on Saturday and not give an inch away

A strong indicator of Leinster or Ireland being in a good collective head space is when Sean O’Brien won’t shut up. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

The strength-in-depth that Ireland have continues to be nurtured by Joe Schmidt

 Jonathan Sexton tackles England’s George Ford. If Ireland seek out Ford in open field they can hurt England, drag him into the physicality of the game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Payne’s return would strengthen Ireland who must target Ford’s defensive limitations

Eddie Jones’ England look like a team feeling the pressure as the weight of creating history bears down on them. Photograph:  David Rogers/Getty Images

England may be closing in on record but they look a shadow of team that dominated 2016

Conor Murray’s try was pivotal against France but his game management was arguably even more important in getting Ireland over the line. Photograph: Paul Faith/Getty Images

The players can prepare in a good head space over the next week - the same can't be said for Wales

Conor Murray’s ability to dart through the smallest gap is not what France are expecting from Murray or Ireland at this moment. Photograph: Inpho

Expect something new from Ireland and Joe Schmidt, something to ignite Ireland’s Six Nations

(From L) France’s centre Remi Lamerat, France’s scrum-half Baptiste Serin, France’s centre Gael Fickou, France’s prop Uini Atonio, France’s full back Scott Spedding and France’s flanker Louis Picamoles celebrate a try at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

France will take Ireland to a dark place, but a high enough tempo game should see us prevail

 Stuart Hogg runs in his second try against Ireland at Murrayfield. Photograph:  Stu Forster/Getty Images

Defensive lapses cost us but no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater

Finn Russell is the outhalf Scotland have been lacking for a number of years, and is vital to their Six Nations hopes. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty

Presence of electric Glasgow Warriors duo takes Vern Cotter’s side to another level

Adam Byrne’s arrival from a lovely hidden position off the blind wing against Castres was all but unreadable. His acceleration allowed him ghost through the gap. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Winger epitomises so much of what is good about Leinster’s attack right now

Conor Murray of Munster is treated for an injury during the match against Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Munster scrumhalf clearly targeted in Glasgow and can expect similar for rest of season

Robbie Henshaw is supported by Garry Ringrose and Johnny Sexton as he makes a break against Zebre. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose forging a truly exciting midfield partnership

New Zealand’s Malakai Fekitoa tackles Simon Zebo of Ireland around the neck during the November international at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Zero tolerance on new law will have drawbacks but high tackle needs to be consigned to history

Munster’s Jaco Taute scores their third try against Leicester last weekend. Photo: Dan Sherida/Inpho

Much to be excited about Irish rugby right now but controversy could be down the line

 Keith Earls scores Ireland’s  third try against Australia in the November series. Ireland will bring their attacking gameplan into the Six Nations with bonus points now on offer. Photo: Colm O’Neill/Inpho

Joe Schmidt saw it coming: a try isn’t worth five points any more – it’s a quarter of a bonus point

Simon Zebo’s man and ball hit on Michael Hooper. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ability to think on their feet during games marks this Ireland team out as champions

Ireland line up as New Zealand perform the Haka before Saturday's clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Cane is not dirty but he gambled and Henshaw was carried off, nobody should profit from that

New Zealand captain Kieran Reid leads the Haka prior to kick-off in Chicago on November 5th. Photo:  Phil Walter/Getty Images

It will be harder to beat New Zealand for a second time but it can be done

Ireland celebrate Robbie Henshaw’s try at Soldier Field in Chicago.  Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AP Photo

Ireland preyed on New Zealand’s inexperience to beat All Blacks at their own game

 Leinster’s Garry Ringrose in acton against Montpellier. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Refusal to give in and ability to win small battles will be key against All Blacks

Anthony Foley hands off a tackle from Iain Balshaw at Twickenham in 2004. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Anthony would do anything for you on the field. And you wanted to do the same for him

 Munster’s CJ Stander was tackled early and often by the Leinster defence. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Rassie Erasmus’s side need to offer more variety than they displayed against Leinster

Tempers flare during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Inpho

Leinster versus Munster has become sanitised. Too much about rugby.

Leinster’s Joey Carbery: the Glasgow game was only his third cap for Leinster, but now he knows what he can and cannot get away with. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Graham Henry agrees that there's no need to worry about finding a replacement for Johnny Sexton

 Aly Muldowney and Bundee Aki celebrate with John Muldoon after Connacht’s Pro12 win over Leinster. Connacht’s success was built on Pat Lam striking the correct balance between homegrown talent and players recruited from elsewhere.

Our provincial squads need to be constantly strengthened by world-class foreign players

‘Despite being uncapped for two years, Marshall was so clearly ready to play a Test match in South Africa’ Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland’s victory over South Africa in the first Test was one for the players

Andrew Trimble’s try against France in 2014:  a prime example of everybody doing their job automatically, with trust in the outcome. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Ireland might not take South Africa series but one-off Test win is possible

Had Connacht lost to Leinster they could have become like so many teams that get to a final and lose; they could have drifted away disillusioned. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Aly Muldowney’s development in Galway suggests Lam’s philosophy is sustainable

Leinster’s Ben Te’o and Connacht’s Bundee Aki: “At the Sportsground they seemed to come to the ultimate hard man’s agreement. It was wonderfully barbaric stuff.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Pro12 final will come down to mental strength as Leinster seek to end on a high

Connacht’s Matt Healy always seeks to get on the ball and influence the game. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Hindsight tells you it is foolish, but you do anything – injured or not – to get out there

Even by All Black standards, Dan Carter is special. Photograph: Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

Ireland outhalf laid the runway for Dan Carter’s smooth landing in Paris

Bundee Aki is a good decision maker. If he keeps up this form he will enter the Isa Nacewa bracket of world-class foreign signings. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Pat Lam’s well-drilled side will never have a better opportunity to win a trophy

Gordon D’Arcy celebrates a try against Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final. “It was  as seamless a performance as Leinster have ever produced.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Fixture against Munster will always be the one that matters most to Leinster players

Jared Payne: The Ireland centre demonstrates the decision-making skills honed in New Zealand. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Innovation would help bridge the gap to Southern Hemisphere elite

Stuart Hogg: The Scotland fullback has the skills to do something out of the ordinary but more importantly the confidence. Photograph:Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter’s tactical duel will decide this Six Nations battle

“By the end of this game, Josh van der Flier looked every inch an international openside flanker.” Photograph:  Clive Mason/Getty Images

There are plenty of positives to take from the Six Nations as the squad grows and learns

England’s 10-12 axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell will not win too many collisions, so they are tasked with creating space. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images.

George Ford and Owen Farrell must be turned and met by bloody-minded tackling

Ireland missed  Seán O’Brien’s leadership when he went off injured against France in thw Six Nations. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Reuters

Gordon D'Arcy: poor execution, not a lack of ambition, letting side down in Six Nations

Johnny Sexton in action against Wales in their Six Nations opener. “On seeing his demeanour on the field last Sunday it looked to me like he was enjoying his rugby again.” Photograph: Getty Images

Tribute to Paulie’s legacy came with collective performance against Wales

Johnny Sexton: He remains the most important figure in Irish rugby. If he stays fit, if he rediscovers his form, he will make things happen. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Huge responsibility on the tight five to at least gain parity with bigger Welsh pack

“With Paul O’Connell gone, Ireland’s next main influence will emerge during this Six Nations. He has to and he doesn’t necessarily have to be the captain.” File photograph:  Stu Forster/Getty Images

Rory Best is correct choice in current circumstances to lead - he has earned this honour

“We can’t afford to just throw Josh van der Flier (above), Gary Ringrose, Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey and promising Munster flanker Jack O’Donoghue into the Test match arena.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

We will all be trying to read Joe Schmidt’s mind and all of us will probably get it wrong

Andy Farrell in action against Ireland at Croke Park in 2007. Ireland won 43-13 on an emotion-fuelled evening. But I still remember how much hassle Farrell was. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty

Arrival of such a big personality will prove of benefit to Munster and coach Anthony Foley

Jonathan Sexton leaves the Stade Felix Mayol pitch following Leinster’s defeat to Toulon in last weekend’s Champions Cup clash in France. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Being genuinely tough to beat may have to suffice for the next few years

New Zealander Maa Nonu in action for Toulon against Agen at the weekend: what Toulon are doing, while amazing to watch, is concocted in Mourad Boudjellal’s office. Photograph: Bertrand langlois/AFP

This weekend it all comes back to the mental strength of the collective

Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw.  Photograph: NPHO/James Crombie

The lure of big spending foreign clubs is growing, and it’s not just Connacht at risk

 Josh van der Flier breaks through to score Leinster’s try during the  Champions Cup loss to Bath  at the Recreation Ground. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire.

Ideally Leo will continue to drip feed players like Ringrose and van der Flier into the team

Charles Piutau runs at the Leinster defence. Piutau is one of a number of excellent signings made by Wasps in the summer. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leo Cullen’s side were always likely to struggle against much more finely tuned Wasps

Dan Carter is the complete player. His tactical kicking, his passing, his defending were all on the money against South Africa at Twickenham. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

World Cup final one-off game and anything can happen – but Australia must attack

Joe Schmidt has delivered two Six Nations and got us to a World Cup quarter-final. He is ideally placed to bring in structures so the next wave of players are better coached at a younger age. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Too many 18 and 19-year olds are learning passing skills they should have by 14 or 15

In the face of adversity, Ireland’s replacements against France delivered individual moments of calm excellence, particularly Ian Madigan, whose task at outhalf was hugely daunting. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

A mixture of a kicking and a running game can keep quarter-final rivals guessing

Gordon D’Arcy celebrates with his  team-mates after scoring against France after his return from injury  in 2009. “The lads mobbed me because they understood what their team-mate had been through, where he had to climb from to wear a green jersey again.” Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP

Joe Schmidt’s side have been letting the blinds rise and are ready to play a big hand

Scott Williams leaves England’s Mike Brown and Sam Burgess trailing in his wake at Twickenham. Burgess showed all the attributes of his rugby league background in what was England’s biggest game for eight years. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Bath centre lacks the sense of timing required to be effective at international level

South Africa’s young centre Jesse Kriel looks stunned after Japan’s Karne Hesketh scores the winning try during the Pool B match at Brighton. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Rugby supporters may not know who is to blame for mistake – but your team-mates will

 Rob Kearney scores against the All Blacks: “It’s very hard to find a weakness but they are beatable. Ireland players know this now.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

‘Quick ball is historical option for successful Irish teams, not the unnecessary offload’

It’s no fun having to tackle someone like Mathieu Bastareaud if he gets a 10-yard run on you. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Defences are so organised that pace and power are essential to modern game

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