Thursday 14 December 2017

Ireland shielded by a siege mentality

Murray and McGrath driven on by the negativity of outside opinions

Ireland's Jack McGrath during squad training at Carton House. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ireland's Jack McGrath during squad training at Carton House. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ireland's Conor Murray in action against Wales during Sunday's Six Mations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Munster's siege mentality is now Ireland's.

There is definitely the distinct impression that the Irish have determined to take all the outside criticism that has encircled them since going out to Argentina in the World Cup quarter-final and turn it into a motivational tool for becoming the first to win three consecutive Six Nations championships.

"Whatever the perception of the camp is, we are quite a confident bunch. We have to be," said scrum-half Conor Murray.

The simple fact coach Joe Schmidt could not carve out a piece of history last Autumn should not colour what Ireland have achieved outside that competition.

A person of deep knowledge and intellect on the game shared recently that the opinion inside the New Zealand circle was that they would not win the World Cup without Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith, their captain and defensive leader.


Ireland took to the quarter-final without their captain Paul O'Connell, their general Jonathan Sexton, their main ball carrier Sean O'Brien, best lineout operator Peter O'Mahony and the defensive and attacking brain of Jared Payne.

This would have represented the appalling vista for the All Blacks of losing Brodie Retallick, Dan Carter, McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Smith.

This puts into perspective the unfortunate hand Ireland were dealt when they needed everyone.

It is an old Irish failing - or is it a lovable trait? - to ignore the facts in favour of holding tight to the dream.

Ireland did not implode against Argentina. They were just beaten by a better side. Simple as that.

Leading into week one of the Six Nations, the overwhelming evidence of multiple injuries and the sub-standard state of the provinces in The Champions Cup led everyone to conclude Wales were too big, too strong, too good.

Everyone except the management and players.

"Over the last two years we have done quite well," said Murray.

"I know there have been changes to the team, but there are people filling in there and doing good jobs."

Even when Ireland let a 13-point lead slide to a three-point deficit, they did not go into panic mode.

"We just stuck to our game plan. We knew we could get into a position to level it.

"That's the way we think and the way we have to be."

The theme of the outside perception being at odds with the internal belief was continued by Jack McGrath.

In spite of the loss of Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, O'Mahony, O'Brien, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald, the Leinster loose-head held the internal line.

Where one, or even seven, give way to injury, others rise up in their place.

For McGrath, there was never an issue because the prop has already felt the highs and lows of international rugby in the last two years.

"I don't think so because we have proved it so many times before," said McGrath.

"A couple of guys go out, others step up every time.

"That is just the squad we are and what we are trying to build to; that's never an excuse for us.

"I don't think you'd hear anyone in this squad saying that."

And then came the loaded statement.

"In the outer periphery, they might be saying that but no one in the squad believes that."

The Irish will need all of the gumption they showed against Wales to find the win at Stade de France that would place them in a healthy position to retain their title.

The job at hand for France coach Guy Noves is to take Les Bleus back in time to those days when the rest of Europe feared and revered them in equal measure.

That means less kicking, more running, counter-attacking, off-loading, embracing risk.

This is a giant leap away from the power game favoured by Noves' predecessors.

There was disorganisation, rampant individualism and incoherence to much of what France did against Italy.

The chaos theory just doesn't crack it in the professional age, at least not straight away.

Noves is not interested or doesn't have the patience to re-introduce French flair in baby steps.

He has taken to walking down the road of short-term pain for long-term gain.

"That is what you're getting with France and, for us, we can't really concentrate on them being chaotic," said McGrath.

"We just have to put in our game plan and focus on our roles and on what we have to do.

"Because if we're trying to chase them and play as they play, we can't play like that, if they're throwing offloads.

"We're going to have to be aware to every single player.

"They are a pretty athletic and skilful team and we're going to have to be awake to that."

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