As thoughts turn quickly to next Saturday’s quarter-final duel with Wales in Wllington, Ireland backs coach Alan Gaffney is calling on the players to ‘get on with it and grasp the possibilities’ they have created for themselves by finishing top of Pool C.
Alan Gaffney says it is very much a case of ‘starting again’ after completing the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup unbeaten.
Last Sunday’s game against Italy was effectively a knockout match and given the number of double Heineken Cup winners in the Ireland squad, they are well used to the pressure involved in such scenarios.
It is an element Gaffney feels they can use to their advantage next weekend, with the Australian telling RTÉ Sport: “Ireland have been very, very good at this (knockout) style of rugby now for some time, initially probably led by Munster.
“The knockout competition, which effectively the Heineken Cup becomes, means late in your pool rounds you’ve got to win games or you don’t go through and then obviously there’s the quarter-final, semi-final and final.
“It’s a style of football our guys are pretty used to at the present time and have been pretty successful at over the past decade at least.
“It’s something that we live with on a day-to-day basis and something we feel pretty happy with,” he added.
Apart from the shoulder injury sustained by hooker Rory Best, Ireland report a clean bill of health ahead of the hugely-anticipated clash with Pool D runners-up Wales.
Given that it is a six-day turnaround, Gaffney underlined the importance of keeping the players fresh and making sure they are the best-prepared they can be for the quarter-final.
“We have a training session tomorrow (Tuesday), but I think the session is 40 minutes. It’ll be a nigh walk-through tomorrow. We try not to give them anything too tough within 48 hours of a game.
“Effectively the only real training session will be Wednesday. But then again I’m a firm believer in in the fact that more is not better. It’s important to keep the players fresh.
“We don’t need to go over things for the sake of going over things. We’ve got to be accurate again – we understand that – but training for long periods isn’t t the sole answer.”
There is a very obvious feel-good factor surrounding the Ireland camp at present, no doubt helped by the succession of wins and the huge numbers of fans turning out to support the team both inside and outside the grounds.
Whatever happens on Saturday and beyond, the players and management have plenty of memories to savour from the 2011 tournament – none more so than winger Keith Earls, who celebrated his 24th birthday with a two-try haul against Italy.
Gaffney revealed: “Earlsy addressed it last night when they were celebrating his birthday. It was fantastic for him to score a double on his birthday.
“He said it’s a fantastic experience to be travelling around for the last few weeks with this bunch of guys. It’s such a happy group, winning does help that for sure but at the same time they get on so well together and they work very hard for each other.”
On the subject of Wales, Ireland’s backs coach has sat up and taken notice of the strides they have made over the past year under Warren Gatland.
The manner of their pool victories over Samoa, Namibia and Fiji, along with how close they came to toppling the Springboks in their opener, suggests that the Dragons are breathing fire once again.
“Wales have been very, very good. I think they’ve improved enormously over the last 12 months,” remarked Gaffney.
“They weren’t in a particularly good place the last few years. They didn’t perform during the Six Nations for a number of years in-a-row after winning the Grand Slam.
“They had become a little bit predictable. They’ve now changed that and full credit goes to Gatland, (Rob) Howley and (Shaun) Edwards. They’ve been moulded back into a side that really challenges.”
He continued: “They’ve got some exciting young players. They have a very strong forward pack with Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Huw Bennett in the front row.
“Going back, (Sam) Warburton has obviously been a huge success, being captain of Wales at 21 or 22 is some achievement.
“In the back-line obviously they’ve got a lot of talent, going right across the pitch. Depending on how they play – do they play (Jonathan) Davies at 13, or young (Scott) Williams, the boy from the Scarlets?
“Whether they play (Shane) Williams and (George) North or Williams and (Leigh) Halfpenny, whether they play (Lee) Byrne, whether they play (James) Hook – they’ve got plenty of options. It’s an exciting bunch of players they’ve got.”
Meanwhile, forwards coach Gert Smal, who was part of the title-winning South African management team at the last World Cup, has outlined what Ireland’s approach should be for the knockout stages.
“Nothing changes, we’re still the same, it’s game by game and you have to pick them off one by one now,” he insisted.
“You don’t worry about the other teams, they have to look after themselves. We just have to concentrate, see that we get our players fresh for this week and well-prepared for the game against Wales.”
Reaching his second successive World Cup quarter-final as a coach is a fine achievement for Smal, who clearly thrives on the ‘do or die’ nature of these knockout tussles.
“It’s energising. Moments like these, it was a high pressure game (against Italy). We knew that they were going to come out flying, especially that first 20 minutes.
“It’s a high pressure game, it’s like a drug. When it’s not there, there’s something missing but I think that’s why you’re involved in the game as a player or a coach. It’s for these moments, to show what you can do under pressure.”
One blip from the Italy game that Smal was particularly unhappy about was Ireland’s defending of the Italian maul. Improving that will be top of the homework list for this week.
“I think we stopped their mauls badly, so that’s one area we have to improve in and what we did was sit and wait for it.
“We sat well but we sat and waited instead of sat and counter-rucked and that gave them too much momentum, especially in the first half. The second half we put that right a little bit but we still sat too much.
“At least I’m happy it’s happened now, winning a game, and at least going into the next couple of games that’s something we can fix.”
Follow the Ireland team in New Zealand on www.twitter.com/irfurugby.