Six Nations 2014: 4 Things Ireland Must Do to Keep Grand Slam Challenge on Track
Ireland have enjoyed their best start to a Six Nations since winning the Grand Slam in 2009.
Back-to-back wins hint at a consistency that has eluded them over the last decade of Six Nations tournaments and cost them at least two more titles.
If they are to add this year’s trophy to their cabinet, they will do it the hard way with away fixtures to England and France, the latter providing a potential Grand Slam decider on the final weekend.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Ireland have shown encouraging signs in the opening two weeks of this competition.
Here is what they need to do to keep the green army marching.
1. Keep on Rolling
Ireland’s rolling maul has been a finely tuned machine of war so far in the championship.
They must keep it well-oiled and moving forward as they head into their remaining three games, all of them against tougher packs than the two they have faced so far.
Rory Best’s throwing has been excellent and their quartet of jumpers, led by the lighthouse Devin Toner, have been practically flawless.
They will need to be cute about how they shift the maul’s point of attack to get their big green bus going against the stronger defensive units of England and France, who will be poring over tapes of their previous games to formulate a plan to stop them.
2. Stay Stingy
Ireland are yet to leak a single try in the championship but will have their defence tested sternly at Twickenham a week on Saturday.
Their rearguard is built on Test rugby’s longest-standing centre partnership, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, and backed up by the rock-solid Rob Kearney from full-back.
They stood up to the powerhouses of the Welsh attack manfully last weekend.
Rather than flying up to smash their men, the Irish backs softly shuffle wide before putting in the hit, looking to isolate the ball carrier and force turnovers. It has worked well so far.
3. Stay Healthy
Easier said than done. Before the tournament, Ireland’s treatment room was already inhabited by Sean O’Brien, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Reddan and Keith Earls.
Dan Tuohy (pictured) has joined them following his broken arm, suffered after coming on as a replacement against Wales.
Ireland need to keep their key bodies in one piece with the physicality due to ramp up in the rest of the Six Nations.
4. Pick a Game Plan Fit for Purpose
Ireland’s win over Wales was a testament to simplicity. In a modern game awash with strategy and science, Joe Schmidt’s stripped-back game plan was a study in identifying an opponent’s strengths, assessing the conditions and choosing an approach that suited.
Based on low-risk rugby and the boot of Jonny Sexton, Ireland kicked the ball away and invited Wales to try their luck from deep.
They couldn’t and Ireland steamrollered them.
As it got wetter, Ireland’s strategy became an even better way to play that game. But Schmidt is smart enough to know the same plan won’t work as well every time.
Indeed, we saw a high-octane running game that kept the ball in hand much more in their agonising defeat to New Zealand in the autumn, which shows the coach is building a side with more than one card to play.
Schmidt will have his plan for England well thought-out.