by Frank Schnittger
Tue Mar 14th, 2023 at 03:39:57 PM EST
A Grand Slam in the 5 or 6 Nations rugby Championship has only been won 41 times in the 97 years it has been contested with England (13), Wales (12), France (10) leading the way and with Scotland and Ireland on 3 apiece some way behind. Ireland won it in 1948 (Ravenhill), 2009 (Cardiff) and 2018 (Twickenham) and it is an honour previously achieved only by some vintage Irish teams led by legendary players such Jackie Kyle, Brian O'Driscoll, and Rory Best. Were Ireland to win it on Saturday it would be our first time ever to win it in Lansdowne Road.
Hard fought wins against Wales (10-34), France (32-19), Italy (20-34) and Scotland (7-22) have set us up for another tilt at the Grand Slam, 6 Nations Championship and Triple Crown all in one go. Previous Irish teams might have baulked at being such hot favourites, played conservatively, and perhaps lost. But this Irish team, superbly coached by Andy Farrell, is made of sterner stuff, overcoming all manner of adversity to earn their right to challenge for the ultimate honour.
At various stages of the Championship Ireland have been missing key players like Furlong, Bealham, Sheehan, Kelleher, Healy, Beirne, Gibson Park, Sexton, and Henshaw; and Ringrose and Henderson (along with Beirne and Bealham) have already been ruled out of Saturday's encounter. They may well be joined by Doris, Kelleher and Sheehan who may not recover from their injuries in time, in which case Coombes, Herring and the uncapped Tom Stewart will get their chance.
Last Sunday Ireland were forced to play Cian Healy (normally a prop) at hooker with Van Der Flier taking over the line-out throwing duties. Given the highly specialised and intricate nature of the modern game, beating a good Scotland side away from home was some achievement in the circumstances. During a chaotic half-time interval, the team didn't even know whether Kelleher would be able to keep playing, and thus, what the game plan actually was.
Ireland have been the World no. 1 ranked team since their first ever series win against the All Blacks in New Zealand last summer. But whereas in 2019, when we first achieved that honour, there was considerable scepticism as to whether we could sustain that ranking, (and indeed we couldn't), this time round no one seems to begrudge it to us. "Ireland are a team that have forgotten how to lose" was the verdict of the Scottish press.
England are coming off a disastrous run which includes sacking their Head Coach, Eddie Jones, after a poor Autumn series; a loss against Scotland followed by uninspired wins against Italy and Wales; and then a disastrous 10-53 thumping by a rampant France in Twickenham. It would be a mistake to regard them as a poor team, however, and they are still ranked 6th. in the World, just behind Scotland. France were brilliant on the day and the game just ran away from England. Rugby can be a cruel sport and momentum is all. You can be only slightly the poorer side and lose by 40 points if things go against you. England are unlikely to have such an off day again.
So, a win for Ireland on Saturday is anything but a done deal. If Ireland allow the occasion to get to them and start indecisively (as they did against Scotland), we could be in for a long battle where injuries and fatigue from just a 6 day turnaround could be decisive. In Maro Itoje, England have a player who has been the bane of our rugby lives, and we have already lost two of our best locks, Beirne and Henderson. Our squad depth has improved enormously, but any team would miss a world class players like Ringrose.
All that said, I am confident Ireland would win 8 times out of 10. We just have to make sure that Saturday isn't the anomalous occasion where even more things go wrong. We will have to start strong and never take our foot off the pedal (unlike against Wales, where we played them off the park for 30 minutes and then almost let them get back into the game). Nothing less than the extraordinary performances we saw against France and Scotland will suffice. It is a big ask of a team that have already given their all.
Whatever happens Irish rugby is on a high. Saturday could see another couple of outstanding young players like Coombes and Stewart make their mark if they are called upon. Our squad depth has never been stronger, with outstanding players like Carbery, Cooney, Marmion, Blade, Doak, McGrath, Deegan, Penny, Osborne, O'Donoghue, Hodnett, Kendellen, Hume and Lowry unable to make the cut. Our u.20's are also playing for a Grand Slam on Sunday having just thrashed Scotland 7-82!
The future is bright: Roll on the grand slams and World Cup this Autumn. We have nothing to fear except fear itself!
The 37 Man Ireland Squad to play England has been selected and contains four uncapped players* in place of the injured Tadgh Beirne, Iain Henderson, Garry Ringrose, and Finlay Bealham.
1. Andrew Porter, Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne
2. Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher, Rob Herring, Tom Stewart*
3. Tadhg Furlong, Tom O'Toole, Roman Salanoa*
4. Ryan Baird, Kieran Treadwell
5. James Ryan, Ross Molony*
6. Peter O'Mahony, Cian Prendergast
7. Josh van der Flier, Nick Timoney
8. Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Gavin Coombes
9. Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray, Craig Casey
10. Johnny Sexton (Capt.) Ross Byrne, Jack Crowley
11. James Lowe, Jacob Stockdale
12. Bundee Aki, Stuart McCloskey
13. Robbie Henshaw, Ciaran Frawley*
14. Mack Hansen, Jordan Larmour
15. Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O'Brien
The first named in each position is the likely starter, injuries permitting. Aki seems to be favoured over McCloskey for the 12 shirt, and there is a case for Jimmy O'Brien rather than McCloskey on the bench, as he can cover 10-15 whereas McCloskey covers only 12, with a reshuffle required for an injury at 11-15. Otherwise, the team more or less selects itself.