Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Only the Slam will do now

So now we know for sure, all roads really do lead to Cardiff for 80 minutes set to seal this group's fate as the most talented in Irish rugby history.

Unfair to compare eras I know but, with due respect to the much revered achievements of 1948 and '49, I do believe Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara and co to be already that. Victory at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday and there will be no argument.

The word destiny doesn't enter into it. What this squad, under Declan Kidney, reap they earn, and at sand-puckered Murrayfield, under intense pressure, it was no different.

To borrow the boxing metaphor, for the opening half they were put through the mill. We had wondered how the Scots would play it. It took little time and little analyzing. They were physically brutal and confrontational, energetic and working in numbers at each and every gain-line collision. But so many of this group have been down the attempted bullyboy route so many times. You cannot buy or short-circuit your way to such experience. It is learnt at the coalface.

They shipped the punishment, soaked up the punches and, with Munster-like precision, hung in by way of O'Gara's incredibly accurate boot.

It would be wrong to say the score at half time was a travesty. Ireland simply capitalized on the three scoring opportunities that came their way. But put yourself in Frank Hadden's shoes and I don't think it’s too difficult to concede to his expressed frustration at "a meagre three-point lead at the break".

That was and continues in the main the Munster way but is now, too, the Ireland way. Each and every non-Munster player - and for the record there were nine in action in Edinburgh - have bought into the Kidney way.

It is a system whereby you take the best the opposition can offer then slowly but surely turn it around, translating possession and field position into points while sucking out the individual and collective life.

Easier said than done of course and here experience and disciplined leadership is central. On current form and proven ability O'Connell and O'Driscoll are in a class of their own.

To have both at the tiller in the green shirt at times of crisis is a bonus in the extreme. Kidney knows that and milks it to the full, transferring full responsibility when that white line is crossed. And it shows.

This is a team in which the collective will supersedes the individual components at all times.

At half time they were on the ropes but dint of desire, underpinned by physical and moral courage, turned the tide. The demeanour and body language smacked of a squad on a mission - destined for nothing but intent on giving it everything in pursuit of something to be cherished forever and a day.

Kidney will not thank me for saying it but they are on the verge of sporting immortality, of going where no previous Irish team, no not even Jack Kyle, Karl Mullen and the heroes of six decades ago have been before, to a Six Nations Grand Slam.

Forgive me if I throw a little spanner here but even a 'mere' Championship will not be enough. If the title is to have any clout or real meaning then it must be by way of a clean sweep i.e. Grand Slam.

Pressure is what you make it but

with Grand Slam, Championship and Triple Crown all on the line against the reigning champions on their home patch and still defending the latter two I think it fair to say that this will be as intense as any game of rugby outside a World Cup Final can get. Warren Gatland has already made his mark in that regard but, with hand on heart, I cannot think of any individual I would want at the helm more than Kidney. He is to the manor born in terms of the pressure the coming week is set to bring.

He is the master craftsman when it comes to getting inside his players’ heads and setting realistically achievable targets. Whatever else he will not be found wanting when facing down the inevitable media hype and ensuring his men hit the Millennium in a near perfect state of Karma irrespective of the guaranteed distractions along the way.

But back to Murrayfield and alongside O'Driscoll's try-saving tackle and O'Gara's drop goal at the end of the most complete phase of Irish play Stringer’s break was, without doubt, a game-defining moment. On his own admission he has gone away and, through hard-graft, reinvented fundamental aspects to his game. Both his box kicking and this, the most incisive cut of the game, fully reflect the honesty of that self assessment.

The call is Kidney's but I believe that on Saturday's compelling hour-long evidence he has earned the right to that starting slot at the base of the Irish scrum. The head coach will take time out and allow the dust to settle before analyzing Edinburgh and planning ahead to Cardiff. He doesn't do impulse but his calm and measured honesty is reflected in the way this squad goes about its big match business.

That said I suspect that even he will be taken aback at the widespread interest over the coming days. He is where he would have wanted to be and his own mind intended to be.

The similarities between Grand Slam-winning England in 2003 and this Ireland side now are striking. For that reason I believe we are facing into our biggest match ever. With four down it's now one, albeit massive, hurdle to rugby immortality.

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