Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland long past clinging to underdog status
From Sexton to Porter, this group of players crave pressure - it’s their primary motivation
Ireland will play their own game via Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton – together again for the first time since Australia last summer. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The general Irish rugby supporter may not be past that way of thinking but the whole idea of ‘don’t jinx these good times’ is behind us. I know the players are well past that mindset. I see where they are currently existing and marvel.
It’s been noted a few times these great days of (almost) continual success began with the 2009 Grand Slam (the bones of that pack being Munster’s European winners) with Rory Best and Rob Kearney providing a direct link from there to here.
Sport remains cyclical. We are in the middle of this journey, the zenith if you will, and while it will end at some stage, right now, I don’t see any one result stalling the progress of this team.
We could lose Saturday evening at the Aviva. It’s a possibility. I actually think we’ll win, but if we do stumble expect an immediate recovery in Murrayfield a week later.
Ireland, now more than ever before, control their own destiny. You hear the same soundbite from every player, even Devin Toner, who is not the sort to boast, to Jordan Larmour: if we play to the standards we demand of each other we know we should win.
This is plain speaking and proven fact, not arrogance.
Now, that doesn’t guarantee victory. The referee, a bounce of the ball or the opposition playing well beyond themselves against the champions – which will happen in every game from Saturday to Cardiff on March 16th – can intervene.
I still recall the Millennium Stadium in 2011. We had Wales where we wanted them – 50th minute, 13-9 ahead – when Matthew Rees pulled off a sneaky and illegal quick lineout for Mike Phillips to scamper down the touchline.
Brian [O’Driscoll] and Paulie [O’Connell] surrounded Jonathan Kaplan and clearly explained the error as the original ball had been touched by a supporter (so the lineout had to be set).
Kaplan: “Is it the correct ball?”
Touch judge Peter Allan: “Yes, it was.”
It wasn’t but Kaplan awarded the try (the TMO would intervene in 2019) and we lost 19-13. So long to another Triple Crown. Pressure is a game changer.
You do everything in your power to avoid an unfair happening deciding the result. Such moments don’t derail this team. They move swiftly on to building retaliatory points. Paris this week last year is as good an example as any. Even if it takes 41 phases.
All this means we can no longer claim underdog status. It’s gone. The players moved past it several years ago. The rest of us caught up in November.
The All Blacks can sound arrogant when stating matter-of-factly: ‘we are the best in the world. We expect to win every game’.
That’s why Steve Hansen was quick to state, “It’s Ireland’s turn now, let’s see how they cope with the pressure”.
So far so good and I’ll tell you why. From Johnny Sexton to Andrew Porter, this group of players crave pressure. It’s their primary motivation. It’s what they need to perform, be it a big Champions Cup match against Toulouse or England coming to Dublin, that’s the fuel nowadays.
Pressure is needed. It used to be suffocating. We went through those days.
I didn’t fear England coming to Croke Park in 2007, but everyone you came across that week had that ‘I Hope We Win’ vibe. From the kick-off a switch flicked in my head and I knew we’d take them apart. Imagine having that mindset before a game, all built on meticulous preparations. These days the pressure has altered the mindset to ‘We Should Beat This England Team’.
That’s one of the great achievements in the history of Irish sport. We have earned the right to challenge for a World Cup.
So, how did we get here? I think it comes down to being able to respect the person giving you feedback, no matter how uncomfortable his words ring in your ears. These interactions are what makes Carton House such a holistic and productive environment.
Take Caolin Blade. In the past 10 days the Connacht scrumhalf will have realised that his opinion will be listened to and rated on the same tier as Conor Murray.
Many stories were written about a young Rob Kearney questioning the Munster players’ desire in a green jersey at the now mythologised Enfield meeting before the ’09 championship. Yes, Rob’s words had value but strong, constructive opinion has become common practice.
Again, there had to be a starting point to reach where we are now.
We are in the middle of a special time.
The coach can only set the scene. Much is made of Joe Schmidt being a control freak but communication has to be player-driven. How they interact with each other, the environment they create, cannot be down to the management.
The traditional model for teams I played on was the head coach appoints a leadership group and all the nitty-gritty stuff come from them. Ireland are not like that, not anymore. Rory, Johnny, Pete and others do lead the team but, for example, Jacob Stockdale – a handy enough winger but still only 22 years old – calls the defensive system on the field.
This is the power of mutual respect. You don’t need to like your colleague but you must acknowledge their ability and work ethic.
Remarkably the Ireland squad still provides a healthy battleground for places. I’m not sure who will start at openside or inside centre and bet the house Joe will mix up a few more positions as the tournament progresses.
Normally a team that has been this successful picks itself but try telling that to Robbie Henshaw or Bundee Aki. This is the first time Joe has to make the decision of who should partner Garry Ringrose. Chris Farrell’s form means he enters this conversation too.
Same goes for Seánie O’Brien or Josh van der Flier.
Some elderly Irish voices might remain anchored to the ‘keep a winning team intact’ idea but that’s the old underdog mentality again. We are long past it.
Now, repeating the Grand Slam is a tall order but I see Ireland and Wales playing for the title.
We know what’s coming from England. They will be direct. There will be late shots on Sexton. I don’t even see the need for an improvement or return to the performance that beat New Zealand. This is different gravy. That was a one-off performance. Beating England first up in the Six Nations will be by hook or by crook. I don’t remember this game ever being a free-flowing, open contest. You meet them on the brutality line that Eddie Jones is talking about but you beat them with smarter rugby.
Ireland will play their own game via Murray and Sexton – together again for the first time since Australia last summer. Victory will belong to whoever manages the game better so, on that premise, I know where my money is going.
Eddie Jones and England enter season four of a compelling story. They definitely turned a corner in November. He has most of the players – especially the Vunipola brothers – that are needed to win a World Cup.
Really, they are hitting the reset button and that’s where Eddie is at his best; the beginning of a journey.
Ireland provides the ideal hurdle for them after what happened in Twickenham last year and building on victories over South Africa and Australia while almost beating New Zealand.
Historically, English pressure is predominantly external – that will always be the case – while Ireland’s heaviest pressure is internal.
Currently, the Irish squad expects more of themselves than supporters or anyone else. When we play as we know we can we win.
It gives pressure a positive connotation. If England can conjure a similar magic potion we might be in trouble.