The sight of the battleship England hoving into view, all guns blazing and with plenty of ammunition still left to unleash, might remind Irish supporters of when the All Blacks landed in Chicago last November.
Back then the world champions had just been crowned winners of the Rugby Championship, were odds-on favourites after 18 straight test victories, and carried with them an air of invincibility that left Ireland cast in the role of next victims on the rack.
That was not how it turned out that sunny afternoon at Soldier Field, Ireland producing a performance for the ages to blow Steve Hansen’s men off the park in a 40-29 epic for a first win over the Kiwis in 111 years of trying.
Followed up by a narrow loss in the rematch in Dublin and a heroic win over Australia a week later, last November’s body of work should have been the launchpad to greater things, with Joe Schmidt’s men rightfully installed as pre-championship contenders heading into the 2017 RBS 6 Nations.
Yet as we reach the final round of the championship, defeats in Edinburgh and Cardiff have reduced Ireland to a supporting act in a fixture against England that should have been a Grand Slam decider.
England already have the title wrapped up thanks to their seven-try demolition of the Scots at Twickenham last week and will be bidding to eclipse the All Blacks with a 19th consecutive victory at the Aviva Stadium this evening.
Ireland’s carrot is second place in the championship and retaining fourth spot in the world rankings ahead of next month’s 2019 Rugby World Cup draw in Japan and while still important ambitions, wounded pride and the defence of home soil against old enemies will be the primary motivators come 5pm.
Where did it all go wrong? CJ Stander, one of Ireland’s standout players in this campaign, was one of the many in his camp this week to dispute Ireland’s performance’s had dipped at all since November.
“I don’t think so at all,” the flanker said. “I just think we’ve made small mistakes here and there, we just haven’t looked after the ball. I think in stages where we were in November (we were) on top of our game. But we’ve made small mistakes that have cost us points in games. It’s something we know we need to fix and work on going into this game.”
The trouble with the small margins being cited by all and sundry in the Ireland camp this week is that they can start to add up to a much wider one between you and your opponent. And after the humbling experience of being kept tryless by Wales last Friday in a 22-9 defeat, the prospect of an England side seeking history — and with an even stronger starting XV than last week — gives the potential for more pain.
While Ireland have lost the services of Conor Murray and Rob Kearney from their backline and dropped Devin Toner from the second row, England’s Eddie Jones has been able to promote a fit-again Billy Vunipola to No8 and Anthony Watson to the wing in place of Nathan Hughes and Jack Nowell, respectively. Both have made their mark on Irish teams in the past — Jones has made it clear he wants his players to improve on last week’s impressive performance at Twickenham.
Schmidt said: “We thought (Vunipola) and Anthony Watson would come back, just because they have been ‘default’ starting players through Eddie’s time and beyond. They both started two years ago here in the game and at one stage we thought we had them under real pressure and Anthony Watson took off. He ran about 30m but went weaving through about five tackles.
“And Billy Vunipola, early in the game he got a great poach. He’s just impossible to move. There are elements of his game that people see, like his carrying, and they focus on that but on the other side of the ball he’s incredibly physical. He picked one of the Scotland lads up last week and rag-dolled him — that is the power he brings to the position.”
After naming his team on Thursday, Schmidt likened a potential Ireland win this evening to the sort of upset that saw Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-0 first-leg Champions League lead overturned by Barcelona. It was Eddie Jones of all people that made the more positive case for the home side.
“Ireland not having anything to play for means they have the courage to fail, which frees them up mentally,” speculated the England head coach.
“We are a little bit vulnerable because we have already been crowned champions and we had a big win against Scotland, so for us it’s getting the right mindset for the game.”
Do not believe a word about his side feeling vulnerable. England will be hungry, aggressive, and, unless Ireland get up off the line and into the faces of playmakers and carriers like Vunipola, George Ford, and Owen Farrell, ruthlessly efficient.
The wasted opportunities in Cardiff must be converted in Dublin and the cutting edge restored to the sharpness that carved the All Blacks apart last November. So too must Ireland’s lineout improve on last weekend’s showing, when Wales stymied the Irish platform and thrived off their own ball to create gaps in the Irish defence off first phase.
It is a tall order to ask Ireland to stop this England team but maybe it needs a bit of old-school enmity towards the side Schmidt this week called “big brother”.
It’s St Patrick’s Day weekend and the English are here intent on delivering glory.
Ireland must summon every grudge in their psyches to get this win over the line.
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