Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Grand Slam within grasp

In Pictures: Ireland's journey to the Grand Slam showdown
Ireland beat Scotland 22-15 on their way to the Grand Slam showdown with Wales

Four from four in the Six Nations, six victories from their last seven matches and the prospect of a first Grand Slam since the year Ireland became a republic, but Declan Kidney was not about to abandon his principles of attention-deflection.



It is a policy that has never failed him in the past and, since taking over the national team, Kidney has handled the public's increasingly voracious appetite for his thoughts with a good humour reflected in that mischievous response to a query about Ireland's Cardiff challenge next weekend.

There is also a sincerity and assuredness to Kidney that is mirrored in the performances of his team and with the players and coach about to be consumed by hype there is no better man to ensure heads will not be turned.

"It's new territory for everybody, everybody has to do their job and I would respect that," said Kidney. "Realistic expectation is grand, it's when people write stuff for the sake of writing it that doesn't do anybody any favours, I know the Irish press won't be doing that next week," added the Corkman with a smile.

Is he surprised to be at this point so soon into his tenure?

"With where we where, yes because I thought the confidence of the team in November wasn't great. And we've talked about the bit of honesty at Christmas. Eddie (O'Sullivan) was always talking about a bit of momentum, that seems to be backing us up.

"Wales? There's handier ones than having to go to Cardiff and beat Wales. I'll be accused of mind games but they are Grand Slam champions, they're playing at home, they're playing for the championship, they're playing for the Triple Crown and they rested most of their players this week."

After the euphoria of their three-try victory over France, Ireland have been more functional than free-spirited and Saturday was another afternoon when perspiration subjugated inspiration. However, just as against England a fortnight previously, serious questions were asked of Kidney's men and they found the answers, adding to the impression of a team with the experience, confidence and self-belief to douse the fires of potential panic and discount defeat as an option.

Ireland's leaders stood tall once again. Brian O'Driscoll saw little open ground in attack but was ferociously committed once again and combined superbly with Tommy Bowe (left) to deny Scotland a game-changing try just before half-time. Ronan O'Gara had a ropey first half but his kicking was back to its usual level of excellence - as 17 points and an all-time tournament points-scoring record testifies - and he was central to Ireland's

critical third quarter improvement.

Buttressed by his customary support from second row partner Donncha O'Callaghan (now surely a lock for the Lions engine room), Paul O'Connell had a profound influence once again. Bizarrely, the official match statistics declined to include the second row among the game's top carriers but O'Connell continually ploughed a furrow in the Scottish defensive line and, although it would be preferable if he hit the ball with greater depth and momentum, he consistently sucked in defenders and produced clean ball.

For the first time in this championship, Ireland had to plot a victory without the security of solid set-piece possession. Scotland's policy of denying the visitors lineout opportunities in the first half stifled Ireland's attacking aspirations from 'off-the-top' possession and it was the re-establishing of Irish air supply that provided the impetus for the crucial scores in the second period.

The scrum was never secure. Since Euan Murray's return to the tight-head side, Scotland have the best scrummaging unit in the competition and, for the first time this year, Ireland were clearly out-matched in this area. Tangible evidence of this fact was reduced to one irresistible surge that had the Irish eight moon-walking into their own 22 and allowed Simon Taylor to break off the back and set up a first-half penalty for Chris Paterson.

Jonathan Kaplan's uncertainty at scrum-time meant Ireland received the salvation of several free-kicks but Scotland benefited from Kaplan's whistle also as Marcus Horan and John Hayes buckled under the pressure. However, it meant Ireland did not have the opportunity to use the extra space at scrum-time as a launch-pad for three-quarter moves - a situation that will not be replicated in Cardiff against a Welsh scrum that is more functional than fearsome.

Paterson was in the team ahead of Hugo Southwell to kick goals and he performed his primary duty splendidly. Thankfully, O'Gara was in equally unerring form and Ireland were able to go in three points down at 12-9, rather than nursing a 10-point deficit which would have been a truer reflection of their fitful first-half display.

On the resumption, there was a marked change in attitude as O'Gara began to run onto Stringer's passes and the increase in tempo rattled the Scots with Ireland's ambition soon rewarded on the scoreboard with Jamie Heaslip’s try and eight more points for O’Gara.

Now, it's time to focus on Wales and there are several selection quandaries facing Kidney. Heaslip's superb overall contribution on his introduction for Denis Leamy will book his slot at number eight and while Rory Best battled away at hooker Jerry Flannery's greater dynamism would be a considerable boon against Wales in what is likely to be a far looser game.

It was gratifying to see the honesty of Peter Stringer (left) rewarded with the man of the match award but it does not guarantee his place for Cardiff. He struggled to make an impact in the first half when O'Gara was lying deep and Tomas O'Leary did well when Ireland were closing out the game.

At inside centre, Gordon D'Arcy had a decent overall outing in his first start for over a year. The issue for next week is who do Kidney and Les Kiss believe is best equipped to deal with the daunting physical challenge of Jamie Roberts - D'Arcy or Paddy Wallace?

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