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Dublin: 4 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019

'The opportunity that exists is really precious' - Schmidt set for Grand Slam shot

There are battered bodies in Ireland’s squad but no one will be letting up this week.


It’s Grand Slam week.

While there is, of course, scope for deep disappointment for Ireland and their supporters on Saturday in London, it is also an opportunity to create history.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring a try with Conor Murray, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Dan Leavy Ireland aren't finished yet. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Joe Schmidt and his team secured their third Six Nations title in five years over the weekend but the immediate sense was that this group is nowhere near satisfied yet.

Any celebrations were muted by the fact that Ireland watched England’s defeat in Paris in their suits at the Aviva Stadium, having already notched a bonus-point in their own victory over Scotland earlier in the day.

And there was little sense of ecstasy purely because of what can be achieved at Twickenham. A Six Nations title is great, sure, but Schmidt and his players will feel major regret if they let this Grand Slam shot slip.

The likes of Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll sealed their status as greats of Irish rugby by playing central roles in the 2009 Grand Slam – one of only two in Ireland’s history – and this weekend provides an opportunity for others to join them.

“I think by pure evidence of performance and results, I think you’d have to say so,” said Schmidt on Saturday when asked if he felt this Ireland squad has players of a similar stature.

“Three championships in five years. There are some very consistent personnel during that period: Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Devin Toner, Cian Healy and Jack McGrath.

“There’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton obviously, they have been incredibly consistent through it, and so has Rob Kearney.

Keith Earls celebrates with his daughters Ella May and Laurie Schmidt is delighted for Keith Earls. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Keith Earls. I am delighted for Keith Earls because he probably would have had two other [titles] but he was injured. It’s fantastic for him to grab what he really deserves as well, and then there’s this young crew.

“James Ryan doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a Six Nations! There are kids like that who need to understand what Johnny said.

“They need to understand that this doesn’t happen very often. This is incredibly tough to do and the opportunity that exists next week is really precious.”

It’s Schmidt’s job to talk up the English publicly this week, while simultaneously highlighting to his players where they are vulnerable, where Ireland can strike at them when they’re down after two consecutive defeats for the first time under Eddie Jones.

There is little doubting that the England squad contains high levels of individual quality and even with the English breakdown in alarming shape, Ireland will be pushed to their limits.

Although Schmidt has achieved so much as Ireland boss, a win in Twickenham has eluded him in his three attempts so far.

“I think they’re going to be really dangerous,” said Schmidt of the English. “The personnel that they have, I’ve seen them play often enough – I actually watched them train with the Lions and they have an exceptional level.

“They have extreme pace: Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Jonny May. They have players that have that sort of speed, they have great experience in their halves with Danny Care, the number of caps he’s got and the same with George Ford and Owen Farrell.

Bundee Aki after the game Bundee Aki after Ireland's win over Scotland. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Up front, the real experience they have. I don’t know if Dylan Hartley will be back but Jamie George deputising for him, you know that he’s a fantastic player and was in the Lions being selected as a top quality starting player.

“Across the board, you know how tough that is going to be. They’re wounded, but they’re far from dead and buried. They’ll have a really resilient resolve to come back, bounce back and beat us.”

Looking at his own team, Schmidt will have to ensure his medical team are at their best in the coming days.

Sexton’s involvement in training last week is understood to have been affected by a back/hamstring issue before he fronted up on Saturday, while Cian Healy suffered a stinger-type injury during Saturday’s win over Scotland.

At this stage of the Six Nations, it’s rare that any player isn’t dealing with a niggle of some sort and Schmidt indicated that Ireland will have to get “the glue and sticky tape out” in the earliest part of this week before ramping up for Tuesday and Thursday’s full training sessions.

Schmidt certainly won’t expect any player to be admitting that their body is feeling the effects – no one would risk missing the opportunity that awaits against the English.

A precious chance.

‘I can’t put my finger on it but we need to turn things around as our season is on the line’

‘I would never have thought it would be possible. I would have said, ‘Absolutely not”

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Murray Kinsella

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