To frustrate England, it is imperative to stop Billy Vunipola from making his trademark big carries, writes Donal Lenihan.
When Joe Schmidt compiled his list of back row contenders at the outset of the season, it made for impressive reading — Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Tommy O’Donnell, Jamie Heaslip, Iain Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and Chris Henry.
All eight featured in test matches under his watch and, post-World Cup, he could look forward to adding the name of Munster’s dynamic captain CJ Stander. He could afford to design three different back row combinations from that talented and explosive group without any reference to one of Leinster’s most recent academy graduates, Josh van Der Flier.
Now, less than six months down the line, the young open side has been entrusted with leading the charge against a monstrous English back row which still chooses to go into battle without a groundhog to clean up, link or effect turnovers. As Australia and Wales showed at the pool stage of the World Cup against England, that presents Ireland with an opening. The key to good coaching is exploiting opposition weaknesses.
Eddie Jones is very conscious of the fact that, at the World Cup, the stats revealed England were only rated eighth in breakdown efficiency in both attack and defence. The switch of Chris Robshaw to No 6 with James Haskell occupying the troublesome No 7 jersey has done nothing to improve that.
The inclusion of Maro Itoje, an impressive breakdown operator himself, in the second row for his first international start will help to improve their overall effectiveness but the elevation of van der Flier will have left England’s analysis team scurrying for coverage of Leinster’s early season games.
Some of Ireland’s best performances under Schmidt were back-boned on delivering a manic intensity at the breakdown and contact area, the opening championship game against Wales the most recent case in point. That was achieved against a vastly experienced back row of Welsh Lions who are a far better combination than the trio Ireland face today.
To frustrate England, it is imperative to stop Billy Vunipola making his trade mark big carries. Jones appears to have hung his hat on the young Saracen and is now keeping him on the field for the duration of the contest.
Ireland need to chop him in the tackle with a support defender looking to poach immediately. At worst this will delay the recycle, at best generate a turnover or a penalty. Ireland must also be wary of not affording him opportunities from misdirected box kicks. If England, and Vunipola in particular, are allowed to build momentum then Ireland will be in trouble.
Under Eddie Jones, we have a fair idea of where England are heading even if they are a bit of a distance from getting there. Every team under his tutelage look to blow their opponents away by playing a high tempo, crisp passing, inventive game. The fact he managed to achieve this with Japan by adding solidity to a normally creaking set piece shows how technically gifted a coach he is.
With England, he is starting from the other direction by looking to re-establish their traditional strength through set piece dominance and reignite the power of their maul. He has a forward unit full of explosive ball carriers but still lacking in back row balance. In addition he has highlighted increased fitness levels as a priority, a must if you want to run the opposition off the park.
The last quarter against Italy showcased where he is heading. He introduced a clutter of young mobile forwards in Itoje, Jack Clifford and Paul Hill off the bench at a time when the Italians were out on their feet. He also uses the twin distribution threats posed by the 10/12 axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell to put X factor players such as Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson into space. Against tiring defences, that duo are lethal with stepping ability and pace to burn.
Given the pairing of Ford and Farrell is unlikely to last the test of time with Jones keen to get the injured duo of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade back into the mix, Ireland must seize the moment to exploit their limitations.
Ireland cannot allow Ford and Farrell run the show. Both are vulnerable, in different ways, and cannot be offered an armchair ride. In the same way as all opposition teams now seek to target Johnny Sexton, Ireland must firstly set their eyes on exposing the defensive frailties Ford carries in the key No 10 channel.
Ford got badly messed around at the World Cup by the previous regime and his confidence was affected. He went back to his club in search of rehabilitation but Bath are having a very poor season. The fact that his father, Mike Ford, is also the head coach at the Rec and coming under increasing scrutiny has done nothing to relieve the pressure on the talented young out half.
While Jared Payne is a big loss from an experience and defensive view point, the physically imposing threat posed by the new midfield pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw could be tailor-made to ask questions of Ford and Farrell. McCloskey’s ability to get over the gain line will certainly put pressure on Ford and if he is allowed off load with the precision shown for Ulster this season then Henshaw may be the major beneficiary.
The key challenge for Ireland’s midfield, from a defensive perspective, is to cut off the supply lines the impressive passing game Ford and Farrell offer Joseph and England’s dangerous back three.
With just a single try to show for their efforts in the championship to date, Ireland are going to have to at least double that tally in this game alone to have any hope of coming away with a win. To do so Ireland need to be less rigid with their game plan and recognise opportunities as and when they arise.
Ireland have got used to playing a three-ruck pattern where they look to suck in opposition defenders before seeking to put width on their passes. The problem with this is players are all taking up pre-designated positions in order to effect their roles in the team pattern. As a result, on those rare occurrences when holes emerge and opportunities are there to be exploited, players are not reacting quickly enough and playing what’s in front of them.
The biggest criticism labelled against Ireland’s attacking prowess is it has become predictable and easy to read. If opponents know what’s coming, they will work out in training how to combat it. There was evidence in the opening game against Wales Ireland were moving the point of attack out wider but the weather conditions in Paris eliminated the possibillity of developing that system.
To beat England today, Joe Schmidt is going to have to produce something from left field England haven’t catered for. Australia managed that at the World Cup with a clever series of strike plays off set piece. The difference between the Wallabies and Ireland at present is when those opportunities arise — in particular for those two decisive first-half tries from Bernard Foley - Australia’s execution under pressure was clinical with tight head prop Sekope Kepu delivering one sumptuous pass.
Ireland need to match that to win. That is where Ireland have fallen down in this championship to date but with a reconfigured back line on show, there is an element of unpredictability to what it might deliver. Something special will be required to win this one.
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