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Dublin: 21 °C Thursday 24 July, 2014

O’Connell leads Ireland’s return to Triple Crown chase

It’s been a while since the Ireland captain held a title that was once common.

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

THERE IS NOTHING like success to heighten expectation.

And nothing like expectation to make a two-week wait feel like absolute torture.

Yes, after five Tests under Joe Schmidt and two convincing, clinical Six Nations victories, Ireland are on the road today.

The venue, Twickenham. The opponent, an England team who are back on home soil after trips to Paris and Edinburgh and – bar a poor final 15 minutes against France – look like they could again challenge for the Championship.

Of course, that late collapse to Gael Fickou’s genius means that they come into this game not as joint-leaders, but as a team one defeat away from ending the spring empty handed.

Week three of the Championship got underway last night when France rediscovered the mediocrity of last season to allow Wales reignite the possibility of three Championships in a row. But it is still Ireland who have set the benchmark in 2014, still Ireland who sit top of the table with a game in hand on their nearest and dearest Warren Gatland-led rivals.

It’s a sign of how good things are in Irish rugby at present that the week’s major controversy centred on whether the role of back-row replacement should go to a man from Leinster or Munster. Citing a long-standing plan to rotate the pair, Schmidt this week opted for Jordi Murphy after giving Tommy O’Donnell the chance to double his caps in the opening two fixtures.

As much as anything, it’s an attempt from Schmidt to keep competition for places fierce. Injuries or lack of form and fitness have ensured there is little wiggle room in the starting XV – less still in a starting group who have barely put a foot wrong.

Nightmare

Today, much of the focus will be drawn to the front row. There will still be residual mental scars over the pummeling Ireland’s scrum suffered in London in this fixture two years ago. However, with Cian Healy proving to be as consistent as he is excellent and England deprived of Lions tight-head Dan Cole, there is a strong possibility that Ireland could exorcise the demons of 2012 rather than relive the nightmare.

David Wilson is the man drafted in to the side in Cole’s place, himself only 47 minutes into a return from a calf injury that sidelined him for two months. Schmidt expects to see the Bath prop put in a shift of similar length today, with Sale’s Henry Thomas ready to play over 30 minutes off the bench.

Paul O’Connell wore a relaxed smile along with his black IRFU tracksuit when he crept into a cramped library room of Carton House, but he forced a serious expression when the openinng question came: ‘easy pickings for Healy?’

“I don’t know if you’ve sat beside Wilson at a dinner,” said the captain, rightly assuming none of the microphone-wielding men in front of him had.

“He’s an incredibly big man. He’s the perfect shape for a prop forward and I think England have a lot of players in that position, so for him to be straight back in is a big compliment to him and I don’t think he’ll weaken the side.”

The standout features of Ireland’s game so far in 2014 have been the maul and uber-efficient breakdown work, but with the slightly longer lead time and extra evidence to examine, Schmidt’s side seem wary of relying on the strategies that brought them comfortable wins over Scotland and Wales.

O’Connell speaks of a need to find space, a way around the line-speed that characterises the Andy Farrell defence he knows well from time on Lions duty. The captain will ensure that his pack bring the requisite level of intensity to create some room, it will be down to chief strategist Jonathan Sexton make use of it.

“In terms of, will we be running it all over the pitch? I don’t think so,” says O’Connell.

“I think the big thing with Joe and Jonny is that they’re always trying to find space on a pitch. Look, whether you’ve to run it there, or kick it there, that’s what you have to do.”

Paul O'Connell 18/2/2014

Source: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

What’s rare is wonderful, they say. And when Irish rugby fans and players look back at the mild contempt we held for the Triple Crown in the latter part of the noughties it’s easy to feel ever so slightly ashamed.

It’s not the ultimate goal, sure, but it became an unwanted symbol for Ireland at one time; success, only up to a point.

As honours go, most players would have filed it behind the Grand Slam, the Heineken Cup, Celtic League and, for one or two, maybe even the Schools Cup.

Soon, the prize we cared little for was deservedly taken away. Wales claimed the ascendancy, England sneaked back to the summit and for all bar Leinster personnel, medals have been notable by their absence of late.

Chris Henry laid his cards on the table this week when he expressed a wish to claim his first ever trophy in rugby (the Churchill Cup in 2009 doesn’t count for him). But when O’Connell’s whistle-stop interview tour before catching the team bus to the airport brought him in front of TheScore.ie mic, he too seemed like a man missing the reflective glow of silverware.

“In my earlier years I picked up quite a few of them,” the captain said of the chance to claim his fifth Triple Crown today.

“It’s been a while since, so any piece of silverware would be great. I think if you can go to Twickenham and beat this England team in the form they’re in then you truly deserve a Triple Crown.”

England: M Brown; J Nowell, L Burrell, B Twelvetrees, J May; O Farrell, D Care; J Marler, D Hartley, D Wilson; J Launchbury, C Lawes; T Wood, C Robshaw (Capt.), B Vunipola.Replacements: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Henry Thomas, Dave Attwood, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, George Ford, Alex Goode.

Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O’Connell (capt.); P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.

Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Moore, I Henderson, J Murphy, I Boss, P Jackson, F McFadden.

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