reigning men

Ireland in a bullish 'mind-space' with new leaders pushed forward

“Wracked with doubt? Not really, no.”

A QUICK SCAN of Ireland’s team-sheet at their Carton House base yesterday showed two new additions.

CJ Stander’s name bore the regular asterisk to signal an uncapped player in the line-up. And, two lines down, there was another moniker handed out:

8. Jamie Heaslip (Dublin University/ Leinster) VC.

‘VC’ is vice-captain. Perhaps a new convention to IRFU team-sheets, just helpful advice that we spent far too much time thinking about, or a conscious effort to outline that there is still an existing leadership structure in the team even if this is the first tournament without both Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll since 1999.

Along with the skipper Rory Best and his second-in-command, head coach Joe Schmidt also singled out Conor Murray as a man who had grown into a leadership role yesterday.

Conor Murray James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

After a Lions tour, two World Cups and going into his fifth Six Nations, the scrum-half understandably feels his rise has been a little more gradual than a sudden appearance from behind O’Connell.

“It’s something that comes with time in the squad,” Murray says with a hint of a shrug.

“There are new faces like Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier – lads who have played well for their provinces coming in to the setup. They just come up to you quietly and ask a few questions about things they want shored up on.

You’re one of the older or more experienced heads in the team now… I don’t think about it much, it’s just the way I play. And off the pitch helping lads out is just a natural thing. I’m perfectly comfortable in it and enjoying it.”

As one of the squad’s leaders, and the starting point for the attack, it’s put to Murray that a tight approach is imperative to start with on Sunday.

Excluding World Cup warm-ups, the two games Ireland lost in 2015 occurred after they fell just short of completing a comeback. Both games were in Cardiff: against Wales, Leigh Halfpenny kicked Wales to a 12 – 0 lead inside 14 minutes, and who needs reminding of Argentina’s scorching 17-point opening?

“I don’t know if ‘tight’ is the right word. The way Wales got the 12-point lead last year was indiscipline, it was our own doing. We weren’t trying to overplay or run from our own half too much, it was just ill discipline.

“Argentina was a different story, defensively we just weren’t set up right for the early scores.”

Proof is in the performance

He adds: “That had nothing to do with players missing, it was just split-second decision making, handling errors and things that are very controllable. That’s how we look at it.

“There are leaders missing: Paulie, Peter Cian, Rossy, but there’s Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Nathan White…

“It will be a challenge, but the proof will be in the performance on Sunday. We’ve done as much as we can do in training. It will come out on Sunday.”

After a season of struggle for Irish provinces, those of us outside the camp can’t help but sense a confidence issue. The pounding taken against the Pumas has been followed up with further pain in the Champions Cup. Pain that Pro12 wins alone just can’t soothe.

“Wracked with doubt? Not really, no,” Murray contends calmly.

“I think we’re a realistic team. We analyse ourselves and review ourselves pretty honestly. We know where our short-comings were in that game, but at the same time we saw a lot of opportunity that we created and didn’t take in that game.

“We know how good we can be and we know how hard we have to work to bring that performance out of us.”

Conor MurraySource: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The Ireland camp is a Schmidt-controlled environment, but the attitude is always player-driven. And the VC was on hand yesterday to describe the positive mood around Maynooth despite what people beyond the walls may feel.

"As players, after the coaches speak, we go into our little pods and do some talking," said Heaslip.

I won't tell you exactly what was said, but we are in a very good mind-space. We know exactly what we have to do.
"We know what to expect with Wales and with the experience they have, throughout their squad and team, but we are confident about where we are, and of our ability.

"It is Test match rugby and the team that makes the least amount of mistakes - especially against a team as experienced as Wales - are going to win.We are in a space where we are giving ourselves a good shot at it."

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