Destiny calling for Ireland?
Peter Martin
March 17, 2009
Ireland coach Declan Kidney offers some instruction to his side, Italy v Ireland, Six Nations Champiomship, Stadio Flaminio, Rome, Italy, February 15, 2009
Can Ireland coach Declan Kidney conjure one more win from his side to clinch the Grand Slam? © Getty Images

Is Declan Kidney St. Patrick in disguise? Has he banished Ireland's Grand Slam demons and have the lessons of 2003 and other near misses been learnt? Is Kidney's approach of not talking about the prospect of winning the 'Grand Slam' or at least acknowledging it a touch foolhardy? Plenty of questions, most of which will be answered shortly before 7.30pm on Saturday night.

First things first, the win over Scotland. It was probably Ireland's worst first half of the Championship. They were outplayed and outmuscled up front and but for two timely tackles out wide, the second a brilliant recovery from Brian O'Driscoll as he thwarted Phil Godman in the left corner, the Scots would have gone in at the break with a considerable lead. But as is typical of a Kidney team, the Irish turned things around on the resumption, with more precision at the breakdown and flatness on Peter Stringer's passing seeing them start the half and end the half on the attack.

As backs coach Alan Gaffney admitted, Ireland may not be playing to their full potential and have had to grind out 'ugly' wins over England and Scotland, but the important things they are keeping the juggernaut rolling and now stand on the cusp of Irish sporting history. 'Grand Slam' is a word that has been effectively banned in the Irish camp in recent weeks and that is unlikely to change in the lead up to Saturday's title decider against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

Having spoken with some of the players including O'Driscoll and man-of-the-match Stringer, their approach to the Welsh game is very much one of taking it as a single game, removing the trappings of the Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slam away from it. Easier said than done, I suppose, when a nation in the midst of a recession is baying for any reason to celebrate and what finer way to do so than ending the 61-year wait for a Grand Slam?

Former England and Lions centre Jeremy Guscott's assumption that Ireland will 'choke' in Cardiff is a rushed one. If old Jezza took time to consider Ireland's season so far and the way the cards lie for them at the moment, it is likely he would change his mind. Sure enough, Wales, as defending champions, have the ability to spoil Ireland's party and most of their players will be refreshed having sat out their win over Italy last weekend.

Warren Gatland is a wily coach, he knows his stuff and more importantly he knows how Ireland tick. But the Welsh have only beaten Ireland twice in the sides' last eight Six Nations meetings and Ireland's record in Cardiff is particularly strong.

The Millennium Stadium is a ground which holds fond memories for most of the Irish side. Munster have won the Celtic League and two Heineken Cups there, Ireland have posted 36-6, 25-24 and 19-9 victoriers there and the Irish provinces are now regular winners on Welsh soil so giving away home advantage will not be too much of a factor. But I think the most important issue for Saturday's crunch clash is that Ireland's big name players, particularly O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, are leading the way in terms of consistency.

They were a shell of themselves during Ireland's disastrous 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign but this season they are the ones setting the high standards both on and off the pitch, leading by example and closing in on big roles with the Lions in South Africa in the summer. Their experience and leadership is key as is their drive to achieve, knowing that this be the last chance saloon for some members of the squad.

"Past failures have been forgotten - Kidney has his players living in the here and now and moving effortlessly from week to week."

There is no denying that Ireland's younger players are also delivering. Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip are starring in the back row, Rob Kearney has nailed down the fullback spot and Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe, the latter ironically flourishing at the Ospreys, offer live danger for opposition out wide. Helped by what has been a miraculously clean bill of health over the past five weeks, this is a much more complete side footballing-wise than the one which was last just a game away from ending Ireland's Grand Slam wait.

Roll back six years and an O'Driscoll-captained Ireland outfit were blown out of the water by England in a Grand Slam decider at Lansdowne Road - 42-6 the final score. Of the Ireland team to face Wales this weekend, O'Driscoll and props Marcus Horan and John Hayes are the only survivors. Stringer, a starter back then, O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara were also in that matchday squad.

Past failures, including 2007 when they lost the Championship to France on scoring difference, have been forgotten - Kidney has his players living in the here and now and moving effortlessly from week to week. Freshening things up with training trips to Cork and Limerick, along with longer stints in Dublin.

Sport can be cruel but there is no denying that Ireland would be deserving Grand Slam champions. No other team has offered the consistent level of performance they have, throughout this Championship.

Sure, France, Wales and England most recently have thrilled us with some of their play, but Kidney's charges have looked likely winners since their Dublin dismissal of the French last month.

They have oozed confidence and much of that stems from the quality of coaching at hand - Kidney, Gaffney, Les Kiss and Gert Smal are all world class operators.

The bridesmaid's tag may finally be loosening and Ireland, now fourth in the IRB World Rankings, are more than ready to step up to the Cardiff altar.


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