Ireland on the cusp of greatness
March 20, 2009
Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll can lead his side into the history books with victory over Wales in Cardiff © Getty Images
Ireland will go in search of only their second Grand Slam - and first for 61 years- when they tackle Wales in the Six Nations at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
Ireland's 'golden generation' can silence their doubters once and for all with victory over their Celtic rivals to complete an historic clean sweep and secure their first Championship since 1985. A narrow defeat would also bring them the title but the Grand Slam is what they're after and here are seven reasons why they will achieve it:
In BOD we trust
Back to his best, captain Brian O'Driscoll has spearheaded his country's push for honours in this year's Championship. Ireland's all-time leading try scorer has already added three to his tally this year and has rediscovered a spark that appeared to have deserted him not so long ago. Constantly putting his body on the line by tackling himself to the point of exhaustion, he has even slotted the odd drop goal. And let us not forget his lucrative brush with philosophy ("Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.") that kept the press pack smiling.
There is also the small matter of a Lions tour to South Africa later this year where the gifted centre has some unfinished business and another pivotal performance will underline his credentials to not only be on the place but lead the elite tourists. Simply inspirational.
Irish army on the march
The Irish invasion will have already begun. They will descend on the Welsh capital in their thousands, some with tickets, and plenty without. For many it will be a familiar path having been on the glory trail with Munster in the Heineken Cup and they will travel in hope of another memorable success. This may be a home game for Wales but the Irish army will make their presence felt - in the stadium and on the streets of Cardiff.
Kidney's united nations relief effort
Declan Kidney, the softly-spoken Ireland coach, has transformed this Irish side since taking the reins in 2008. He has pieced together a formidable backroom staff with the likes of Australian duo Les Kiss and Alan Gaffney to sharpen the defensive and attacking units respectively while South African Gert Smal has overseen the forward effort. The final piece of the puzzle was Welshman Paul Pook who joined the set-up late last year as fitness coach. Together they have taken their nearly men to the brink of immortality. Kidney has got Ireland firing on all cylinders - his influence has re-invigorated some who had appeared to be on the wane while at the same time refreshed the squad where it had gone stale.
Wales coach Warren Gatland chose to de-value the Six Nations by fielding an under-strength side against Italy in Rome and as a result his side almost came a cropper. They scraped home at the Stadio Flaminio and were bickering amongst themselves come the final whistle. The decision to rest his stars, following their Grand Slam-ending defeat against France, mean his side come into this crucial clash with no significant momentum. The narrow victory in Rome also leaves his side facing an uphill task to claim the title - added pressure they could obviously do without.
Add to this, his mis-guided attempt to stoke things up this week by declaring that Wales dislike Ireland - when we know it is England they hate - and you have more evidence of the Wales boss losing his way as it comes to the crunch.
Men of Munster
The Munster influence within the Ireland side has long been evident and the arrival of the province's Heineken Cup-winning coach Kidney has only cemented that. The Men of Munster have long been the bedrock of the side, dominating the scrum with the likes of props Marcus Horan, John Hayes, hooker Jerry Flannery, locks Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell and flanker David Wallace all ready to go into battle again this weekend. Add to this the half-back pairing of Ronan O'Gara (the all-time leading points scorer in the Championship) and Tomas O'Leary and you have further reason for confidence. These players are used to winning big matches at the Millennium Stadium and they will have one more for the scrapbook come Saturday night.
Blend of experience and youth
A quick scan down the most-capped internationals of all-time will bring further comfort to Irish fans. Five of their match-day squad are closing in on a century of caps for their country - with O'Driscoll, Hayes, O'Gara, Malcolm O'Kelly and Peter Stringer all sitting on a wealth of experience to guide Ireland through their most testing encounter of recent memory. In addition, Kidney's decision to freshen up the squad has already borne fruit with likes of fullback Rob Kearney, winger Luke Fitzgerald and backrow duo Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip all stepping up with telling contributions. Surely a winning combination.
Ireland travel to Cardiff with the fear of another high-profile failure set to propel them to Grand Slam glory. In 2001, the foot and mouth crisis took the wind out of their sails while in 2003 the men in green suffered at the hands of England. They also came up short in Championship decider against Wales in 2005 raising yet more questions about their ability to perform under pressure. In 2007, they placed one hand on the Championship trophy again only to lose out to France on points difference.
Three Triple Crowns in the last five years will have provided some comfort, but not enough to dull the ache of what could have been. But the lessons have been learnt and destiny calls. Ireland also have the edge over Wales in their recent encounter - winning six of the last nine Championship meetings, and four of them by over 20 points.
Concussion, relegation and the mother of all surprises - it's the Monday Maul.