Martin johnson had warned about premature talk of a Six Nations Grand Slam. The England manager knew only too well that playing Ireland in Dublin in the final round would be a sizeable obstacle in his side’s bid for a clean sweep – but no one predicted that the men in green would derail the chariot in quite such spectacular fashion.
Until that final round, Ireland had gone through the championship in fits and starts. They defeated Italy with a last-minute drop-goal, lost to France at home, crucified a 12-point lead against Scotland to scrape a 21-18 win, and came up six points short against Wales. England, on the other hand, were enjoying a run of victories that had last been seen in Johnson’s playing days. But it was Ireland who came out of the blocks firing and they stormed to a memorable 24-8 win.
Ireland scrum-half Eoin Reddan says that the result – and the performance – had been a long time coming, to the frustration of the team. And the fact that it came against an England team in pursuit of their first Grand Slam since 2003 made the victory all the sweeter.
“The criticism (from the media and public) wasn’t unfair, people just wanted us to play better than we were,” says Reddan. “Teams always want to stop whoever’s trying to win a Grand Slam. We knew we had it in us, so we were trying to stay positive and not get too bogged down in our excuses or a lack of confidence. We weren’t very happy with the way we played against France and we knew when we got back to the Aviva (Stadium) we were going to have to put in a better performance. Everyone was so up for that game.”
So if Ireland had their best performance waiting in the wings all along, why did it take until the final week of the championship for them to show their true colours? One area where they outweighed their red-rose opponents was in experience, something which Ireland have in abundance, and Reddan says credit must be given to Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell for the intensity they brought to the pitch. The duo also helped the team alter their approach for the final match, and to worry less about the game plan and concentrate more on their pride in the green jersey.
“One of the most important things is their work-rate,” Reddan says of the two talismans. “Physically they’re good, and they’re competitive. It’s great to have guys who are so talented, and their ability to keep on working for 80 minutes and keep the team moving is phenomenal. They were honest in what they said about being physical on the day.
“Irish teams in the past have had an abundance of spirit but probably lacked technical skills, whereas we were technically very good but probably weren’t playing with as much emotion as we could have been. So we needed to tap into that natural passion that people have when they play for Ireland and not worry about the technical side too much.
“The tough work was done in training, so we focused more on being abrasive and we were technically a lot better because of it. Focusing on individual rivalry wasn’t going to help. We had to set our own standards for ourselves.”
The battle for Ireland’s half-back positions was as fierce as ever during the Six Nations, and Reddan claimed the starting jersey against Scotland, Wales and England ahead of Peter Stringer and the injured Tomás O’Leary. He played alongside Ronan O’Gara for the trip to Murrayfield, but by the time England arrived in Dublin his Leinster team-mate Jonathan Sexton had been reinstalled at No 10.
The pair will return to the Aviva Stadium later this month to take on Leicester in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, a team that Reddan is familiar with from his days at Wasps. He knows how tough it will be to tame the Tigers, who are dominating the Aviva Premiership, but he is looking forward to entertaining them in Dublin.
Reddan won the Heineken Cup with Wasps in 2007 and would dearly love to win the title again, not least because decent form in Europe would help him keep his nose ahead of his Munster rivals in the race to the World Cup. But Reddan is a team player, and while he has loved being in pole position he says everyone has an important place in the squad whether or not they’re in the starting XV.
“I’ve been playing the game for a long time and I know sometimes you’re the one getting picked and sometimes you’re not,” he says. “You can still have a big impact when you’re not picked by taking it in the right way, and putting your best foot forward for the sake of the team.
“There’s nothing you can do about the World Cup now. You’ve just got to try to focus on the club and push as hard as you can there. It’s all go, and you’ve got to keep on going and keep your head down and push as hard as you can.”
With such competition for both half-back positions – and throughout the squad – Declan Kidney will be the envy of many of his coaching counterparts come September.
This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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