It’s a long time since the turn of the Millennium when an Irish visit to Rugby HQ was exquisite torture. Led by the superb, albeit deeply unpleasant, Martin Johnson, England would regularly hand the Ireland team their arse. Routs, including an ignominious Millennial 50-burger, were the order of the day.
But, since 2004, Ireland have fared much better, winning more than they have lost in the 6N at Twickers (even-stevens if you include the RWC 11 warm-up). Paul O’Connell, Dorce, BOD and (perhaps surprisingly) Andrew Trimble have featured in most of these games so there will be plenty with winning memories to help expunge any bitter reminiscences of the St Patrick’s Day massacre.
To be honest, I am fed up of Irish pundits and columnists donning the sackcloth and ashes about that game. England had a strong scrum, but Ireland could have survived if Mike Ross hadn’t cricked his neck in one of the early scrum engagements. I defy anyone to name a prop who is Rabo class, let alone international class, on both sides of the scrum. - just think of tubby Stevens or Mícheál O’Bent, and you’ll understand what I mean. Tight-head is a super technical position and scrummaging on the other side is akin to playing tennis with your weak hand. Regrettably, the inevitable happened and Tom Court became a source of ridicule, which is grossly unfair given his performances for Ulster on his preferred side. A repeat is highly unlikely given Ireland’s front-row renaissance, more of which anon.
2010 provided much happier memories and Ryle Nugent with plenty of opportunity to utter his trademark roar. Sat in the corner where Bowe touched down Sexton’s deliciously weighted grubber, my abiding memory is of ROG kicking the most perfect spiral to the right hand touchline to set up the field position that led to Bowe’s decisive score. Having watched the game back, I am convinced that it is impossible to truly appreciate the beauty of that punt on the TV and that I am blessed to have had the perfect vantage point to witness the Cork maestro’s brilliance.
So what of this week’s encounter. Billed as the championship decider (on the basis that PSA can’t keep winning if he doesn’t select his best players - Fickou is on the bench again for crying out loud) this match will see the championship’s 2 best coaches going head to head. I am a huge fan of Lancaster. Inheriting a shambles that proved beyond all doubt that there is more to being a good coach that being a great player, Lancaster cast off the established players (e.g. Nick Easter) and built a side that buys into his value set. So, happily, there is no place for the odious Felon Armitage, but then Lancaster has some fairly tidy alternatives in Mike Brown and Andy Goode, to choose from.
Lancaster’s team plays in the classic English way, that is to say, boshtastic, although I suspect that this is more a function of England’s total lack of creativity in the midfield rather than any dogma to play attritional rugby. As Whiff of Cordite pointed out this week, they have awesome power in their pack but they have been weakened significantly by the sad loss of Dan Cole with a neck injury. David Wilson has only had one short run out since before Christmas and wouldn’t be listing cardiovascular fitness as one of his strengths. If Ireland play with tempo, he will do well to last beyond 50 minutes so Church and McGrath could have an enjoyable afternoon. Certainly they should be able to prevent England getting the quality of possession to provide the launchpad for Billy Vunipola or Ben Morgan. Combined with Youngs’ inability to strike, Ireland should be able to get on top in the last quarter.
Ireland will need to maintain the outstanding discipline which they have shown in their first two outings. The less we see of Owen Farrell’s incredibly annoying sideways glances the better. England will look to negate the impact of O’Mahoney who has been outstanding so far. However, I don’t think it is as simple as running at him to ensure that he has to make tackles. It’s no accident that POM has not made double figures in an international. There is always someone next to him, often Paul O’Connell, to bring the runner to ground and if they avoid that pair they will be running at Best and Henry or Dorce and BOD.
The Irish defence, expertly drilled by Les Kiss, will receive a much sterner test that it did against Wales, who were poor, or Scotland who are abject. But they will need to maintain their parsimonious habits because tries will be hard to come by. Ireland will need to look more like Schmidt’s stereotypical Leinster if they are to pierce Andy Farrell’s white wall. I expect them to be more expansive but would also expect to see Johnny May tested under the high ball and Jack Nowell being turned regularly. Certainly they oughtn’t to be kicking the ball anywhere near Mike Brown who represents a serious counter-attacking threat. With Goode and now George Ford to come off the bench, England could finish the game with their most creative back line for years.
However, the rest of the bench would be England’s greatest weakness. Lee Dickson wouldn’t make Ireland’s extended squad and if we see more than 20 mins of his flappy arms at the base of the ruck, we should be alright. Surely Lancaster has learnt his lesson and will look to leave the excellent Danny Care, who has fully recovered from his catastrophic pre-Lions dip in form, on the pitch for as long as possible. The battle between the Harlequins pivot and the ever improving Connor Murray, should be one of the highlights of the tournament.
Much though I like Lancaster, my admiration for Joe Schmidt is far greater. With every utterance his reputation grows and it is abundantly clear that he commands the respect of the players. It’s evident that they buy into his gameplans and he has them drilled to execute to a high level. Even the way he manages those outside the squad is outstanding as demonstrated by his talking to Donncha O’Callaghan on his omission and advising him of what is required to get back in.
So will it be a triple crown and another step on the road to a historic third G-word? It’s going to be tight but I am confident and am looking forward to 4 o’clock on Saturday with unalloyed relish.
Bring it on.