Donal Lenihan looks at three challenges that will decide Ireland’s day of destiny.
1. Make sure chemistry trumps emotion
It seems strange to suggest that a team as successful as this England side — remember they were back-to-back Six Nations champions going into last weekend — might today be relying on raw emotion to beat Joe Schmidt’s extremely well-choreographed Irish side.
A few weeks ago, nobody would have foreseen England returning to Twickenham on the back of two defeats, having accounted for Italy and Wales in their opening two outings.
However, a side moulded and fine-tuned by Eddie Jones over a remarkable run of success since February 2016 now looks in need of a radical overhaul, with only one week to oversee it.
Jones confirmed that necessity by making seven changes, all of which are justified. For this group of England players, today is a one-off contest, an opportunity to right the wrongs of the last two games. All talk of the World Cup in 18 months’ time has gone out the window. For some of the England players, their World Cup aspirations could be over already if they lose again. They will remember what Ireland did to them at this juncture last season, despite having lost to Scotland and Wales earlier on in the championship.
History is full of one-off Ireland victories over more-fancied England sides, when various teams emptied the emotional well with performances driven by passion, pure heart and a manic desire to spoil England’s day. Those roles are reversed today, as England seek to protect an unbeaten Six Nations run at Twickenham that stretches back to 2012.
An epic encounter awaits in Twickenham tomorrow!
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Under Schmidt, this Irish side is extremely well organised, coordinated to a tee with each individual absolutely clear as to his individual and collective role. There is no room for doubt and that makes them a nightmare to play against.
Just when you think you have them on the ropes, they find a way to bounce back. Their multi-phase pressure game forces you into making mistakes and to concede penalties which they convert with ruthless efficiency. If England are to win today, they must learn to protect the ball in contact and control their emotional energy. To have any chance, their discipline simply has to improve.
2. Win the showdown at the breakdown
England face a serious dilemma. They know they will have to commit more numbers to the ruck to compete with Ireland, will have to be more physical in doing so and must somehow find a way to slow Ireland’s ball down without adding to their growing reputation as serial offenders.
England have conceded 48 penalties in the tournament, starting with a respectable nine against Italy but rising to a peak of 16 in the defeat to France. They average 12 penalties a match compared to 5.5 conceded by Ireland.
In an attempt to address this chronic situation, Jones drafted in outside help at training last Tuesday in South African official Marius van der Westhuizen, who was due to act as assistant referee at Twickenham today. Not anymore. That training ground involvement cost him the appointment, as England, rightly, were adjudged to have gleaned an unfair advantage. With Australian referee Angus Gardner in charge, Jones wanted a southern hemisphere take on England’s woes at the breakdown rather than use regular adviser Wayne Barnes from the RFU. The big loser here was van der Westhuizen, as Jones got everything he wanted from the exercise. We will find out today if that contributes to a more disciplined performance around the contact area.
Of equal concern for Jones has been England’s complete failure to compete at the breakdown and the inability to protect the ball in contact. Incredibly, of the 16 penalties conceded in Paris, seven occurred when England were in possession.
That has served to highlight poor technique in contact, a failure of the support for the ball carrier to arrive in time and clean out opposition players. The fact that Ireland have been so adept in this increasingly influential aspect of the game must be keeping Jones awake all week. Something has to change here for England to compete.
The fact that Jones has made all the changes I feared he might, concerns me. In my opinion, this is the strongest matchday squad England have fielded in the entire championship. The front five will be very competitive at the set-piece and the back-row has a more balanced look about it, even if it is still lacking a pure open side.
If England choose to resource the ruck with more numbers and more intensity — which they are certain to do — then they will effect change in a key area that cost them dearly in the last two games. The big question is will that improvement be rapid and dynamic enough to impact on Ireland’s clear breakdown superiority.
3. Have the key leaders define the outcome
The changes Jones has made to his starting side has made them stronger, but may not have the desired effect when it comes to offering more leadership and direction. The return of long-term captain Dylan Hartley will help, but as we have seen before — against Italy’s no-ruck policy last season and against Scotland last month when they couldn’t find the composure needed to get themselves back into the game — this team just isn’t solution-driven.
It helps that those players operate in key positions right down the spine of the team, an experienced core all the way through, from the front row to full-back.
In the white heat of today’s battle, that will be crucial. As Ireland demonstrated so decisively against France on day one of the championship, they know how to manufacture scores when the need is greatest. I suspect that this will be crucial today as England look to restore some lost pride after what has proved a very disappointing few weeks.
Make no mistake, England are more than capable of winning this game. By restoring Farrell to out-half and pairing him with his influential Saracens half-back partner Richard Wigglesworth, England will be far more direct, especially with Ben Te’o recalled at inside centre. Te’o is well aware of how Sexton and Garry Ringrose operate from his time at Leinster. He also enjoyed a very good Lions tour.
The England back three, with two of the Lions test trio on board in Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson, have the capacity to trouble Ireland and, working in tandem with Jonny May, offer a serious attacking threat. One area of potential vulnerability, however, concerns the switch of Watson from his Lions position on the wing to full-back, where he has looked less than convincing in the basics of the role when playing there for Bath.
That is something Sexton and Conor Murray will be acutely aware of and will seek to expose with their accuracy from the boot and the excellent kick/chase offered by the back three.
Ireland have all the attributes to make history today, but this revamped England side will make things extremely difficult. In some respects, it’s beneficial that Ireland’s Six Nations celebrations last weekend were so muted and low-key. Their moment of triumph was marked with a smile of satisfaction and a quiet handshake. That has only served to reinforce the feeling within the group that they have unfinished business and one more giant step to take.
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