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Johnny Watterson: Is this Ireland team in danger of flattering to deceive?

Scotland game provides the ideal opportunity for Farrell’s team to show it is a superior model to its predecessors

Last week in the Convention Centre, a soulless building that looks across to the FAI offices and rugby’s high performance centre in the Sport Ireland campus, Irish captain, Peter O’Mahony sat in front of the media and made a bold call. He was asked if this team was the best Irish side he had played with over his 12-year international career.

“If I had to nail the colours to the mast I’d have to say yes,” said O’Mahony. “It’s hard to compare because rugby has moved on and the game is different, but in a short answer, I think it is.”

Scrumhalf Conor Murray also trooped in and spoke of the impossible, a wish that he could turn back time on his 34 years.

“I’d like to be just starting off my career with this group because it’s so exciting where it could head,” said Murray.

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Their opinion of the current team was not surprising. Since last year’s exuberant expectations following a Grand Slam and record winning streak of 17 consecutive matches including a pool victory over World Cup winners South Africa, the commonly held view was that Ireland’s time in France amounted to a ‘fail but fail better’ than any other Irish team.

The tone from the players and the mantra that they can beat anybody was anchored in the reality that when they were the number one team in the world they wore the crown well. Now ranked two in the world behind the Springboks, Ireland have beaten all the main candidates at the top of the world ranking in recent years. They have earned the right.

But it is that potted history of the last year or so that makes this weekend and the visit of Scotland so important. Ireland must beat what’s in front of them and win back-to-back championships. If not, the danger is the value of last year will seep out and accusations will fly that, despite the captain’s words, this is an Irish team flattering to deceive.

The confidence of being able to win matches they are expected to win and do it under the pressure and scrutiny of an expectant home crowd is what effective, strong sides do and what this group has become. It has moved away from the old days of promising only to disappoint.

Still, the systems breakdown at the end of the match against England, the individual options taken by players, inopportune penalties given away and England’s last attacking move had an awful echo of how Australia came back to beat Ireland with the last throw of the dice in the 1991 World Cup at Lansdowne Road.

The difference is that Irish team of over 30 years ago were the Five Nations whipping boys. During that season’s championship, Ireland had lost to France, England and Scotland and drew 21-21 with Wales. The team had also travelled to Namibia, where it was beaten twice. It was an amateur team in the real sense.

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As Nick Popplewell told RTÉ a few years ago, after the weekend it was “straight back into work. My poor old boss John was still paying me for the six or seven weeks I was away, and we were a small business”.

There was nothing in Ireland’s locker then. It was bare. Australia knew it, felt it and acted. They knew after Gordon Hamilton scored his try that they had time for another attack, which was enough to win the match. The common view suggests Andy Farrell’s side is not windy, is more robust, dependable, accurate and inured to the stresses that try to break them in a Test match.

Yet, the sense last week in Twickenham was that England believed, as Australia did in 1991, that Ireland were vulnerable. They could feel Irish fragility as well as their own strength. They believed in the players and the system to truck the ball back up fast from their lineout, attack the Irish defence and force a penalty, which they did (twice) before Marcus Smith kicked the winning drop goal.

The atmosphere was one of doubt in Ireland’s ability to deal with the tempo and the England ball carriers. Vulnerability, not a word associated with this Irish side, had crept into the match and wormed its way into the play. For some of the players that was a totally new experience, a throwback to the Ireland teams of old, when talent and fight was there in abundance, but reliability was lacking as we were too flimsy to see out a tough game.

Scotland this weekend is the gift for this year’s championship. It presents Ireland with the platform to leave the lasting impression people expect of them. It is the opportunity to recalibrate and relaunch, show what a superior model it is, even to those teams of the Joe Schmidt era.

This Scotland game is the chance for the group that stunned the reigning world champions last year in France to show an authentic version of itself.

Otherwise, there is no tangible reason to believe it is any different from Irish sides that came before and lost two Six Nations matches and the quarter-final of a World Cup. To make sense of the words of O’Mahony and Murray, Ireland must win.

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