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'For the first time ever, Ireland has really good depth in the squad'

Paul O’Connell says there’s no need to pretend a Grand Slam isn’t on ahead of Saturday’s clash with Scotland.

Updated at 08:30

JOE SCHMIDT HAS made no secret of his long-term project of building a deep pool of playing resources ahead of next year’s World Cup, and Paul O’Connell now believes Ireland have strength in depth across the board for the first time ever.

Andrew Porter Andrew Porter's emergence is one example of Ireland's new-found strength in depth. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

O’Connell’s retirement following the 2015 World Cup, coupled with that of the likes of Gordon D’Arcy, forced the head coach’s hand somewhat heading into the following year’s Six Nations but the Kiwi has been firm in his approach of adding to his stocks in the subsequent seasons.

Since that defeat to Argentina in Cardiff, Schmidt has handed 32 players their debut in 26 Test matches, bringing his overall tally to 49 in 53 matches at the helm — and the benefits are becoming abundantly clear.

Already in this Six Nations, the likes of James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter have stood up and justified Schmidt’s decision to fast-track their international development, while all around the park Ireland have options to choose from.

No more so than in the front five, where Porter’s emergence as a tighthead behind Tadhg Furlong has further bolstered Ireland while Ryan — regularly compared with O’Connell — has been earmarked for the 2019 World Cup for quite some time.

“It is amazing at the moment,” the former Ireland captain said of the current front five.

“I think everyone used to talk about the enforcer in rugby in the number four lock. That’s gone out of the game really.

“It is just about being technically excellent at the breakdown, at the scrum, at the maul, at maul defence, technically excellent in the defensive line where the front five tend to be, one, two, three, four, five out from the ruck.

“I think that’s what we have, technically. Obviously, they are big, very powerful men. Technically, they are excellent. The way they defend the maul, the way when they get a 5-metre crack themselves, the way they’ve managed to get over the line and score.

“The ruck has been brilliant for Ireland as well. I just think we have big, powerful men in that position that are technically very good rugby players as well.

“The prop situation is amazing from where we were five years ago. There is a queue of tighthead props. It is amazing. All the provinces seem to have a few tighthead props now.

“We were in the situation where there was one prop [Mike Ross] in the country there for a while. It is brilliant.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell was speaking in his role as Ireland U20s assistant coach yesterday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I think it goes back to that South Africa game [June 2016] when we won that first Test and Joe made five changes for the second Test. It’s all been about building depth in the squad and for the first time ever, Ireland has really good depth in the squad.”

Ireland’s depth, particularly in midfield, has been stretched during this Six Nations but despite injuries to the likes of Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw, Furlong, Iain Henderson and Chris Farrell, Schmidt’s side are three from three with the Grand Slam still very much on.

In fact, it would now be a major disappointment if Ireland were to fall short of winning the Grand Slam at this stage and while O’Connell doesn’t underestimate the threat posed by Gregor Townsend’s in-form Scotland on Saturday, he says there is no need to pretend the possibility of a first clean-sweep since 2009 isn’t on.

“I don’t think you need to pretend there isn’t a Grand Slam on,” the Ireland U20s assistant coach says. “I don’t think you need to do that at all but one of the biggest strengths of the Irish team is that they don’t look too far ahead.

“They talk about just being next moment focussed. I’d say they won’t be looking must beyond the first half against Scotland, not to mention looking at the England game.

“They will have a healthy amount of respect for Scotland and Gregor Townsend. I think Joe, having coached against him at Glasgow, and a lot of the Leinster, Munster, Ulster players know how good they are.

“They know how good Finn Russell is as a player, how good he can be, if you let him be good.

“But they chat to each other — they are well aware there’s a shot at a Grand Slam. They wouldn’t be burying their heads in the sand and pretending there isn’t.”

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