Six Nations: Irish keep their eye on the ball

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt looks on as stand-off Johnny Sexton shows off his skills. Picture: Getty

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt looks on as stand-off Johnny Sexton shows off his skills. Picture: Getty

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IRELAND will not be “distracted by the bigger picture” of chasing Test records and the RBS Six Nations Grand Slam in Cardiff today, according to Paul O’Connell.

Captain O’Connell admitted his competitive spirit has underpinned a 13-year Test career as he gears up for his 100th Ireland cap against Wales today.

Ireland can set a new national record with an 11th consecutive Test victory this weekend, and move within touching distance of a first Grand Slam since 2009.

O’Connell believes Wales will pose a bigger threat than England offered in Ireland’s 19-9 Dublin victory of 1 March, so will fall back on boss Joe Schmidt’s now well-versed routine of shutting out the weekend’s wider context.

“It’s very hard to keep winning. If you focus on a match-winning record or you focus on a championship, then you get distracted from what you need to do,” said O’Connell.

“When we jog out onto the pitch, it’s either going to be their kick-off or our kick-off and you’ll have a job to do. And you just keep trying to repeat all those little jobs, trying to win as many of those little moments as you can, and that’s all you can do.

“I enjoy that way of preparing, I know Joe prepares all his teams like that, but it’s probably something I’ve only stumbled on in recent times. But it does avoid you getting distracted and it does avoid you suffering from maybe the pressure of the bigger picture.

“While the England game was a great result I think there were a lot of things we would like to improve on. I think England are a great side but I don’t think they played well against us and, of all the teams, Wales, later in the championship, playing at home in the Millennium Stadium – we’re going to come across a great side that are probably going to play great as well.

“That’s going to be a bigger challenge I think than England, given the performance they produced two weeks ago.”

O’Connell’s Ireland peers have hailed the talisman Munster lock as better now than at any point in his career, despite his advancing years. The tight-five enforcer will equal Mick Galwey’s record as Ireland’s oldest captain at exactly 35 years and 145 days this weekend.

O’Connell admitted experience has helped him hone his approach, but conceded his sheer will to win has kept him in the sport. “I’m very competitive, that would be my biggest strength,” said O’Connell.

“I certainly can’t run over people or unlock defences with my footwork, or whatever, but I’m certainly very competitive. I enjoy being part of a team and helping drive teams on, trying to make them successful and trying to get the best out of people. I’ve always enjoyed a leadership role whether I’ve been captain or not.

“It’s part of my personality that’s featured in my rugby for most of my career. And that probably has helped sustain my career, it’s never been a chore for me.

“I think that happens to some guys maybe towards the end of their careers, but I’ve always enjoyed it and I still enjoy it.

“I enjoy it more than ever and that’s probably one of the reasons I’m still playing. But there are other parts of it. I think experience certainly counts. I think it’s something you don’t have a lot of respect for when you’re young, but there is a lot to be said for it.”

If they topple Wales – Ireland have only lost twice in Cardiff since 1983 – a win against Scotland on Saturday week would secure the Grand Slam and send them into the World Cup later this year with confidence sky-high.

For their part, Wales still have hopes of landing a third Six Nations crown in the last four years. But they are currently two points behind Ireland, while also holding an inferior overall points difference compared with the Irish and fellow title contenders England, whose last two games are Twickenham appointments with Scotland and France.

“To win the title would be a massive achievement after the disappointment of losing to England [last month],” said Wales scrum-half Rhys Webb, who starts against Ireland for the first time in his Test career. “We know that we have to beat Ireland to remain in contention. To be fair, they have won ten games on the bounce. They are a world-class team – the best in Europe.

“We have had a good week’s training, and the boys are positive. We’ve stepped it up from the England game, so hopefully we can bring a big performance out this weekend.”

Key to Ireland’s victory hopes will be the implementation of tactics by half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. They delivered a masterful display in tormenting England two weeks ago, and Wales are understandably on red alert.

“It was an outstanding kicking performance,” Webb added. “I don’t know if England did much analysis on them – they didn’t seem to put much pressure on nine and ten whatsoever.

“They have got a lot of dangerous players. We just need to be on the money, and we know there is no margin for error because Sexton will keep kicking the three points over and he can also put us in the wrong parts of the field.

“We just need to keep on top of it and keep lots of pressure on them.”

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