by George Hook
The Irish rugby team has not won a Grand Slam in more than 60 years but I believe this group has the special qualities needed to do so and that feeling was reinforced by a meeting with the Grand Slam winning team of 1948 earlier this week. I also believe that, despite the enormous changes that have taken place in rugby in the intervening period, there are key commonalities that unite these two teams.
First, both the team of 1948 and the team of 2009 had and have a greater confidence about winning the Grand Slam than perhaps any team in the intervening period. Ireland did not fear any of the teams they were going to play in the ‘48 Championship and I believe the same is the case for the current side. We saw that confidence in the interviews conducted immediately after the Scotland match, when Ronan O’Gara said quite simply that he just never thought Ireland were going to lose the match.
You can also make a comparison between this Ireland pack and the pack of forwards that won the Slam in 1948. The 1948 pack felt they could raise their game at any point during a match and then go on and win it. The current Ireland team has that same capacity to up the game if needed, and they do it through the forwards as well.
Those qualities are not found in most rugby teams.
There is also a comparison to be made between the style of leadership and captaincy in both teams. In 1948, Karl Mullen, the hooker, was the captain but on-field strategic decisions were made by other players and from what we have seen, that may well be true of the current group. Brian O’Driscoll is the current captain and he has the support of the other players and leads them but the on-field strategic decisions are being taken by different players across the team.
Ireland - now run in more collegiate fashion
The overall atmosphere has also changed in this Irish side. In the recent past we saw the Eddie O’Sullivan Irish teams coached in a style that was very much about control and taking direction from above; the squad was essentially constructed as a hierarchy. This current team is run in a much more collegiate fashion. All the players can have an input into what happens and, even though many of the players are the same from one coaching era to the next, they have bonded in a different way. That is part of what makes this Ireland side difficult to beat.
Kidney has also pursued a different team selection policy and that could be a key to the Grand Slam game as I believe that the teams as selected give an advantage to Ireland.
Two of the calls made by Kidney are as expected. At hooker, it is a marginal decision between Jerry Flannery and Rory Best with Flannery’s greater physicality arguably winning out while the switch of Gordon D’Arcy for Paddy Wallace was always likely once D’Arcy could prove his fitness.
The big one is at scrum-half, particularly given how well Peter Stringer played against Scotland. It is not about the try, which, though it got the headlines, is not actually important to the selection debate. It is about athleticism versus passing.
There is the issue of Mike Phillips, who is 6’3 and 16st5lbs and interestingly, the Welsh scrum-half in ‘48 was over 6’ tall – a very big man compared to other scrum-halves at the time – and the Irish team worked out a policy to stop him.
O'Leary - inferior passing but picked to contribute more
However, I don’t think Kidney has picked O’Leary to mark Phillips. But it is a defensive choice based on the fact fact O’Leary can contribute more around the pitch, even though he is an inferior passer of the ball. What that tells us is that Kidney wants to win this match by playing with a tight, narrowly focussed gameplan.
Looking at what Warren Gatland has done, I believe there are two key errors in the Welsh selection.
First, he has picked the wrong inside-centre. Gavin Henson’s selection is good for Ireland as it introduces an unreliable element to the Welsh midfield and may also affect their morale. I don’t accept that Henson adds to the Welsh attacking game and I have never bought in to the extraordinary belief that they have in his ability.
The incident after the Italy game – where Henson threw his teddy out of the pram over a tactical decision by his captain that he didn’t agree with – was no surprise as it’s the type of thing he gets up to all the time, going back to the Lions’ tour of New Zealand. He is, like Danny Cipriani in England, a very immature individual. The difference is that Martin Johnson has left Cipriani out of his squad where Gatland has Henson in his first XV.
Ireland can win this game through their pack
But the key to match is in the forwards and I believe – as do the men of ’48 – that Ireland will win this game up front.
Wales and Gatland have assisted them with their back-row selection. Gatland could have got an intellectually and technically better back row on the field by moving Ryan Jones to number eight from the blindside wing-forward position but he has chosen not to do that and gone for Andy Powell at number eight instead.
As we saw against Italy, against strong tackling teams with really aggressive defenders, Powell becomes quite an average player and if Ireland knock him over early on he will then start to try too hard and lose control of the ball.
Overall, I believe that the Irish pack, led by Paul O’Connell, who is demonstrating a quite extraordinary physicality way above anything we have seen from any lock forward in recent years, can do a number on Wales.
I think Ireland will win, possibly by more than 10 points.