Ireland can’t do it by halves this time

RBS SIX NATIONS:
Ireland v England
The bookmakers may be having trouble splitting the two sides, but if Ireland can sustain their best rugby for 80 minutes then a promising England team can be sent packing at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (3pm).

Ireland gave us the archetypal game of two halves last Saturday in their RBS 6 Nations opener at the Millennium Stadium as they raced into a 30-3 lead after 42 minutes of scintillating, high-intensity rugby and then creaked in the face of a Wales onslaught so alarmingly that they were lucky to leave Cardiff with a victory.

That they did prevail, despite conceding three tries, is thanks to a wonderful defensive effort that says much about the desire of Declan Kidney’s side to cast aside the stuttering Six Nations campaigns of the last four years and focus on emulating the Grand Slam heroes of 2009. There is still a long way to go in that regard of course, but beating an England side on the up under the new regime led by head coach Stuart Lancaster in Dublin tomorrow will be an extremely important step along that road.

Staying consistent and not needing the 176 tackles it took quell the Welsh will be fundamental to any Irish hopes of victory, particularly as the English represent another extremely physical challenge allied to a burgeoning off-loading game that managed 18 completed passes in contact against Scottish tacklers last weekend compared to Ireland’s three against the Welsh.

Reducing the penalty count from the 13 they conceded in Wales will also be essential given the prodigious kicking form of England fly-half Owen Farrell, who nailed 18 points for his side in the 38-18 victory over the Scots at Twickenham, and the fact his opposite number Jonny Sexton may not get similar numbers of opportunities, with Lancaster’s side only conceding six penalties in the entire game last Saturday.

Ireland can certainly get on top of England at the set-piece where last season’s scrummaging humiliation should not be a factor this time around. It was 12 months ago at Twickenham that an injury to Mike Ross brought home the scarcity of quality tighthead props at Kidney’s disposal as loosehead Tom Court manfully tried to fill the breach. This year, with world governing body the IRB allowing more than one prop on the replacements’ bench, such make do and mend should not be an issue although Ross is backed up by Declan Fitzpatrick, who is woefully short of match practice having just recovered from injury.

Still, Ireland will look to two years ago in Dublin when their front row saw off England’s and ended Martin Johnson’s dream of another Grand Slam secured in the Irish capital, this time as manager. The English have not won here since Johnno led them to the Slam in 2003 and both hooker Dylan Hartley, the hooker who wilted against Rory Best two years ago, and Ben Youngs, the scrum-half whose sin-binning dented his side’s cause that day, this week recollected the ferocity of Ireland players and supporters alike that greeted them in Dublin.

There is the potential this weekend for a similar scenario. For all the talk about a brave new world for Irish rugby with the likes of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy bursting on the scene and flying down the wings, there are just the right number of miles on the meter in Declan Kidney’s side to edge out a young England side big on potential following impressive wins over New Zealand and Scotland but maybe still just a little green on the road.

Those victories, both at Twickenham, will do wonders for English confidence of course, but with just a sprinkling of players surviving that 24-8 tour de force by Sexton and company, Aviva fever will be a new lesson to digest for all but five of Lancaster’s starting XV and three on the bench.

Once again, the key will be the breakdown and this is where Ireland simply have to front up, in terms of intensity and accuracy. They lost two players to the sin-bin at ruck-time in that torrid second-half against the Welsh and that is a situation they can ill-afford to repeat against a side that were clinical and efficient against the Scots in providing Youngs with quick, clean ball, from which they scored two of their four tries on the back of multiple phases. Pick and go is no longer a default but England are still happy to go into contact and Ireland have to match them if they are to keep their Grand Slam bid alive.

After three years of inconsistency in the championship it is high time such a bid should be carried into at least the third game of the campaign and Kidney’s men can make it happen if they repeat that first half against Wales a week ago and carry that beyond the 42nd minute.

Picture: LUCKY 13? Brian O’Driscoll is no longer captain but will have a leader’s role to play once more as Ireland lock horns with England at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. Picture: Inpho/James Crombie

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