DONAL LENIHAN: Ireland will find it impossible to win unless the front five deliver

It’s funny the things you remember.

For me it was the reaction of the Irish diaspora marooned in London at yet another time of high unemployment and economic woe in this country.

Ginger McLaughlin’s famous try, with Sasanach’s flailing in his path, will always be the signature moment of Ireland’s great win over England at Twickenham in 1982.

Seeing that try for the first time in years recently, it was funny to see that some of the Irish fans embracing the Shannon prop after scoring were in their suits.

Was it really that long ago? One of my abiding memories of that day came after the match when Moss Keane helped to sneak me out of the post-match reception in the stand for a pint in one of the old stadium bars.

Moss stood out like a beacon and his natural magnetism drew the Irish from all corners of the room.

It wasn’t the type of inquisition the modern player faces with a barrage of requests for photos on their mobiles, just unbridled joy and thanks from all comers in green for what we had achieved.

One man in particular, with a tear in his eye, sticks in my head to this day with the sincerity of his words.

He explained how difficult it was to be living away from home, in a job he hated and how our victory over England that day would make it so much more bearable for him to go into work the following Monday morning.

You could see how delighted he was in the company of his own, a brief respite from the sadness of his daily routine.

They were special times with Ireland competing well on the field, capturing Triple Crowns and Five Nations Championships. Unlike today, there were no trophies or medals on offer on the international stage at that time. When you see the modern day podiums set up on the field, the honours distributed and the champagne corks popping, it dawns on you that it would have been nice to have sampled that experience.

It is only long after you retire that you begin to place any cognisance on the medals — that is if you can find them.

The Cork contingent on those Irish teams weren’t slow to mark the significance of the occasions however and one of the highlights for players like Michael Kiernan, Moss Finn and myself was returning home on a Sunday evening after an Irish win to be feted by many of our friends including the likes of Cork GAA medic Dr Con Murphy, in the city’s greatest sporting hostelry, The Western Star, with Starry and Nuala Crowley at the ready.

Ireland travelled to Twickenham more in hope than expectation on that famous day back in 1982, despite dismantling the Welsh challenge in Lansdowne Road two weeks earlier. Given the significant impact Joe Schmidt has made already on the current crop of Irish players and their consistent excellence on the European stage for their respective provinces, expectation levels have rocketed since that comprehensive win on Saturday week. Managing that expectation will form an important part of the management team’s brief this week.

One of the few things that remain constant from those distant days of the Five Nations is the desire of every Irish side to beat England in their magnificent stadium, described rather modestly by the hosts as rugby headquarters.

For many of the Irish forwards involved two years ago when yet another English juggernaut pack wreaked havoc on an underpowered Irish eight, the prospect of reversing those roles will prove very appealing.

England’s cause suffered a serious blow last weekend when Lions tighthead prop Dan Cole was ruled out of action for the rest of the tournament. With fellow Lions Alex Corbisiero, the destroyer in chief in the 2012 confrontation, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft all out injured, the last thing Stuart Lancaster needed was to lose Cole. Incredibly, England’s starting side on Saturday won’t have a player who started a test for the Lions last summer.

Cole’s back up tighthead, David Wilson, has enjoyed precious little game time recently due to a calf injury while Henry Thomas, who will start on the bench, is a relative novice at this level. With Cian Healy in the form of his life, that represents a major boost to the Irish scrum. Schmidt and John Plumtree must look to make the most out of England’s misfortune.

It always amazes me how teams on top of their game rarely get injuries. When Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009, Declan Kidney only started 19 players and those changes were at the coaches behest when required to freshen things up for the trip to Murrayfield.

However, when things were falling apart last season, even the baggage manager Rala O’Reilly was seen limping around the place.

Just about the only indispensable player to Ireland at present is Johnny Sexton. Therefore for someone so focused on getting the most minutia of detail right as Schmidt, he must have been seething that Sexton’s participation in next Saturday’s game could have been compromised by something as distant as an illness to Argentine star Juan Martin Hernandez in Paris last weekend.

As it happened, Sexton was only required for 20 minutes of action for Racing Metro on Saturday but having to prepare for a game and sit on the bench was something he could have done without. Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan still have a way to travel before hitting the consistent heights of Sexton on the international stage, so the Irish management will have been hugely relieved to see their first choice No 10 bouncing into camp onSunday.

While Paul O’Connell remains the fulcrum around which the Irish pack functions, Ireland have performed impressively up front in their two opening Six Nations games, despite the fact the Limerick totem has only seen 55 of the 160 minutes of action to date.

That said, his clash with England’s Courtney Lawes promises to be one of the highlights of the afternoon and O’Connell knows better than anyone that Ireland will find it impossible to win unless the front five deliver. When England fail to pummel their opposition up front, they struggle. That leaves them vulnerable and this Irish forward unit, even without Sean O’Brien, looks too good to be bullied.

When Peter O’Mahony returns home from London next Sunday, he will no longer have the option of relaxing in the company of his friends in Starry Crowley’s famous watering hole on the Western Road which sadly is no more. One of UCC’s most iconic landmarks, it should have been a listed building. Returning graduates will be shocked to see it no longer exists. In any event, O’Mahony’s recovery session Sunday afternoon will offer a little more in terms of tangible benefits than that of his predecessors.


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