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England v Ireland: Fired-up Rory Best calling for Six Nations Grand Slam display

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Back in 2009, when Rory Best was part of an Ireland team that made history in clinching a Grand Slam, there was nobody to tell the younger players what to expect in the week of such a titanic Test match.

Ireland had waited for 61 years to see the kind of moment produced when Ronan O'Gara's drop goal beat Wales and clinched the clean sweep and as such, nobody involved in Irish Rugby knew quite what to expect. The watching Jack Kyle aside, it was an unknown for generations of players.

With the gap at present having stretched only to a meagre nine seasons, it's a different story this time around with Best, as well as Rob Kearney, in the unprecedented position of being able to win a second Slam in a green jersey against England in Twickenham this afternoon (2.45pm kick-off).

And while some of Ireland's golden generation had fought for the better part of a decade to finally get over that hill, Joe Schmidt's panel, who have already secured the Championship, approach the same task brimming with youthful enthusiasm and boasting a number of players in their first Six Nations campaign.

Having been there and done it all before though, Best is there to remind them that chances like this are often a long time in coming back around.

"In 2009 nobody had won a Grand Slam, nobody had even won a Championship, but the key players and the experienced players conducted themselves in a way that filled you with confidence," Best recalled of the week building into the concluding fixture which he started on the bench.

"It has to be the same now. There are going to be some young guys in there who are going to look to see how the likes of Johnny (Sexton), Conor (Murray), Pete (O'Mahony) and Earlsy (Keith Earls), Cian (Healy), guys who have played a lot of rugby, to see how they are.

"It's important that we go through the same routine that we have for the previous four games. But it's about making sure they realise how tough it is to get into these positions too and realise what it's going to take to take the next step.

"We don't want to labour the point, we don't want to put too much pressure on, but it is really important they realise that this won't take just an ordinary performance.

"England aren't going to hand us a victory. They're far too good a team and have far too good a record here to suggest that would ever happen. We have to go out, create opportunities and take them.

"These guys are young but they're fairly experienced in terms of big games for their provinces. But they have to express themselves, play their own game. A quarter to three is not the time to go into your shell."

One such youngster who could never be accused of doing that is Best's provincial team-mate Jacob Stockdale.

The winger has taken this Championship by storm and a try today would see him break the record for scores in a single campaign.

With 10 tries in his eight caps, including six in his last three, the 21-year-old has already chalked off one big milestone though.

"It's hugely frustrating, he's already passed the number of tries that I've scored and I can't see me getting back past him again," joked Best.

"But he's been good and it's been talked a lot about his hunger and his want to learn and get better.

"Joe is a brilliant coach and can be a really, really tough taskmaster at times. He asks a lot of you and puts you under a lot of pressure in training, and there are players, some very good players, who just can't cope with that.

"To be fair to Jacob, and he's not the finished article, far from it, but he wants to get better and he is improving, but his record as a finisher speaks for itself."

While the try-scoring tyro may have eclipsed Best's feats when it comes to crossing the whitewash, few can rival what the Ulster stalwart has achieved since taking on the captaincy.

A first win over the All Blacks, a first win on South African soil and a Six Nations title, it's been an incredible two years for the Banbridge RFC man. Yet a win today would be most memorable of all.

"To get the opportunity to captain your province, your country, the Lions, that's special," he said.

"But there's nothing more special than the opportunity to lift a trophy as captain. It's something I didn't get to witness growing up so to have been part of a team that's won trophies, and now to captain that, it's special."

With just one more victory, it could become historic.

Bradley's Verdict: Ireland

How things change in seven weeks. When this campaign began, Ireland would not have dared dream they'd be heading to Twickenham as not only champions but favourites. Joe Schmidt will have been at pains to remind anyone who'd listen about the threat a misfiring England still pose but, with history to be seized, Ireland can be fancied to edge this one. Expect nerves to be shredded though.

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