England have searing pace but still vulnerable

I’m confused. Just over two weeks ago I left Twickenham happy in my own mind that, if Ireland could negotiate what, even at that time, looked like a tricky assignment in Cardiff against Wales, the game against England in Dublin would take care of itself.
England have searing pace but still vulnerable

To be blunt, I wasn’t overly impressed with England and began to wonder how they had managed to win 16 games on the trot coming into that contest against Italy.

Conor O’Shea hit them with his clever, left field, no ruck ploy and England didn’t have the smarts to cope and make the necessary adjustments on the field.

The lack of leadership on the pitch was in stark comparison to Martin Johnson’s World Cup winning side of 2003 which led me to question those closer to the game in England who were suggesting this current side was every bit as good as Johnson’s champion team.

Sometimes successful teams need a kick in the arse to bring them back to reality and if that Italian examination proves to be the case then, in time, Eddie Jones may well have reason to be grateful to O’Shea.

England scrum-half Ben Youngs declared in advance of last Saturday’s demolition of Scotland the lessons learned from the Italian match were not only absorbed in the intervening fortnight but put to good use in what he described as an outstanding training camp in Oxford.

I was back in Twickenham again last Saturday and what transpired at English rugby headquarters was extremely revealing and showed Youngs was true to his word.

England were outstanding, utterly transformed and devastatingly effective with and without the ball.

The power, physicality and athleticism they produced left Scotland bereft of a response.

Such was the intensity of the collisions the Scottish players simply couldn’t compete as they lost a host of key players to injury.

The harder Vern Cotter’s men tried, the harder they were repelled. It was like running into a brick wall.

England had stuttered somewhat in the championship to that point but looked sensational last weekend.

Where Owen Farrell had appeared off the pace on the occasion of his 50th cap against the Italians, converting only 25% of his kicks, this time he was 10 from 10 from the boot and magnificently creative with ball in hand.

If Maro Itoje looked out of sorts playing in the back row in the opening games of the tournament — he is a second row by trade — this time he roamed the paddock as if he owned the place and all but beat up the Scottish pack on his own.

Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes weren’t far behind and the return to arms of Billy Vunipola in the 52nd minute could not be worse timed from an Irish perspective.

Within five minutes of his championship re-emergence, he had scored a try.

England came into the tournament shorn five of the starting pack that consigned Australia to a 3-0 series defeat down under last June with Mako and Billy Vunipola, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw and George Kruis all absentees from the starting side for the opening game against France.

Of that quintet only Robshaw and Kruis have failed to recover in time to make the match day squad and England’s bench, the finishers as Jones has officially reclassified them, is making an awesome impact in the final half hour.

While the power and work rate of their forwards was awesome to watch last Saturday, it was the accuracy, efficiency and quality of their attack that left a lasting impression with me. They tore the Scottish midfield to shreds.

Much of this can be attributed to the twin passing threat posed by George Ford and Farrell but it helps when you have so many players running excellent decoy lines to confuse and create indecision in the opposition ranks.

The genius of Farrell and Ford is seen to best effect when they invariably pick the right option, at the last second of asking, to put the runner through the hole.

It also means that when one is tied up in the ruck having been tackled, England still have a playmaker to direct operations as the other steps into the first receiver role.

Apart from all those attributes, the biggest advantage they hold over Ireland in attack at the moment is searing pace. In Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Jonny May and Jack Nowell, England have gas to burn.

They haven’t always been able to utilise it, especially with Ford a bit off colour in the early rounds of the championship, but when they get into the groove they create problems.

That doesn’t mean for a second Ireland can’t beat them next Saturday. Scotland’s attacking threat was severely compromised last weekend when losing both Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg from their back three, especially as Sean Maitland was ruled out before the game.

Those two injuries, coupled with the loss of Mark Bennett only five minutes after replacing Hogg, meant Cotter had to shift starting No 9 Ali Price onto the wing after only 21 minutes and introduce reserve scrum half Henry Pyrgos. Given that first choice starter and captain Greig Laidlaw was also out injured, Pyrgos was their third choice.

Yet, in extremely challenging circumstances, Scotland still managed to score three tries.

That will not have gone unnoticed by Joe Schmidt. Amid all the hype about man of the match Jonathan Joseph and his hat-trick of tries, he did look suspect defensively while Ford will always struggle to shore up the key No 10 channel because of his (lack of) size.

The question here is, will Ireland be able to capitalise on that potential defensive vulnerability?

Probably the biggest concern after the defeat at the Principality Stadium was Ireland’s inability to convert the 34% of second half action time spent in the Welsh 22 into a single try.

A paltry three points was all they had to show for their entire second-half effort.

That will not be good enough to beat this England team. Much of that can be attributed to the excellence of the Welsh defensive effort with had Shaun Edwards stamped all over it but the problem was that Ireland didn’t create enough confusion in the Welsh defensive ranks to cause them to be breached.

The failure to dominate the set piece in the manner expected is also a concern as England are far better resourced, especially in the front five, than Wales.

As a minimum Peter O’Mahony needs to be recalled to address the lineout deficiencies that surfaced in the defeats to Scotland and Wales. Apart from that, his defiance and belligerency is exactly what Ireland need right now.

Rory Best needs more options to hit out of touch and, given that England have three second row in Lawes, Launchbury, and Itoje along with the 6’4” James Haskell as an auxiliary jumper, Ireland need a quality lineout operator to compete with England at the tail. The current back row mix doesn’t have that.

This week the Irish players find themselves in the same space occupied by their Welsh counterparts last Friday night, with the entire country looking for a positive response after that hugely poor defeat in Cardiff.

Playing against a hyped-up England side, chasing all kinds of records, could hardly provide a better backdrop for a reaction. Sparks will fly.

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