Donal Lenihan: Ireland must exploit England's frailty

TWO defeats against England in 2019 mean Andy Farrell faces big challenges tomorrow afternoon at Twickenham. So what needs to happen for Ireland to win?

Donal Lenihan: Ireland must exploit England's frailty

TWO defeats against England in 2019 mean Andy Farrell faces big challenges tomorrow afternoon at Twickenham.

So what needs to happen for Ireland to win?

1. Make England chase you

England are a confidence team. When their tails are up, as New Zealand discovered in the World Cup semi-final, they are almost impossible to stop. For Owen Farrell’s men, it’s all about building momentum.

Look back to the opening minutes against Ireland in Dublin last season. From the outset they had a plan to put Ireland on the back foot. Once in Ireland’s twenty-two, a pre-arranged line play launching Manu Tuilagi over the gain line, set a trail in motion a move that yielded a try for Jonny May in the very first minute. England were on the front foot and Ireland never recovered.

England are dangerous when controlling possession but vulnerable when the opposition manages to hang onto it for long periods. There is a frailty to their makeup which is quite surprising given the seasoned campaigners which they have in the team. Despite being backboned by a strong cohort of influential Saracens, England can be surprisingly brittle when the pressure comes on.

Nothing highlighted this more than Scotland’s ability to come from 31-0 down and to lead England 31-38 entering the final minute on their visit to Twickenham last March. England looked shellshocked once the Scots ran at them and couldn’t find a way to stifle the visitors’ attack.

To their credit they did manage to snatch a last gasp try to draw level but that escape was more down to Scottish inability to close out the game.

The manner of their defeat in the World Cup final appears to have impacted greatly on a number of their players. They struggled for long periods in their opening defeat to France while the win over Scotland was more of an endurance test due to the horrific weather conditions.

That said, to win away from home in such a challenging environment, especially after what happened in Paris, required character and as a result, England will be better this time out.

Still trying to rediscover the spark that ripped New Zealand apart only three months ago, the loss of Mako Vunipola in addition to his brother Billy, could not be worse timed. Tom Curry is an outstanding wing forward but an average No 8 which is why Ireland have to go after England in the scrum. Even without both Vunipolas against France, England’s scrum stood up well and over the course of the opening two games has manufactured five penalties. What Ireland must seek to do is to create an unstable platform for Curry at the base and expose his lack of experience when it comes to dealing with bad ball.

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2. Attack their remaining totems

With the Vunipola brothers out of the equation, England are down on game-breakers with their two most explosive carriers up front missing. The key man behind the scrum when it comes to getting over the gain line and putting England on the front foot is Manu Tuilagi.

Given his biggest input to the team over the last four years was as a defensive coach, Andy Farrell must devise a system geared towards stopping Tuilagi in his tracks. His inside knowledge of the big Leicester Tiger, garnered over years with Saracens, England and on the 2013 Lions tour, puts Farrell in the perfect position to guide Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw on how to dilute Tuilagi’s impact.

Given the role he played on his return to the England fold in the two games against Ireland last year, Tuilagi cannot be allowed roam free.

The same applies to Maro Itoje in the England second row. Apart altogether from his set-piece presence, his ability to disrupt the opposition maul, a key tenet of Ireland’s game, is unbelievably effective.

In Munster’s Champions Cup game against Saracens in Thomond Park this season, Itoje almost single-handedly nullified the maul.

He is also a menace when it comes to pressurising scrum-halves and Ireland need to stop him from getting at Conor Murray.

Despite the fact that he is still only 25 years of age, Itoje has become England’s go-to man upfront. If Ireland manage to prevent him from making those key impacts outside the setpiece, they will be well on their way to a surprise result.

The other key personality in this England side is Owen Farrell.

Tetchy in Paris and surprisingly wasteful from the boot, in admittedly difficult conditions, against Scotland, Farrell looks less assured in this championship than at any stage in England’s superb World Cup run.

Farrell is England’s captain. Aki and Henshaw excelled as a partnership against Wales up to the point that Henshaw had to depart for a HIA.

If Ireland are to win, the midfield duo will have to find a way to stifle the two big personalities in England’s midfield.

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3. Time to revisit kicking game and aerial dominance

The sight of Ireland’s electric back three of Andrew Conway, Jordon Larmour and Jacob Stockdale all getting their hands on the ball and influencing play from the outset in the win over Wales was both welcome and productive.

For far too long Ireland’s wingers were restricted to chasing kicks in an effort to regain possession. When it was executed properly, Ireland’s kicking game is the most effective in the world. Then teams started using their retreating players as escorts, running clever lines in order to impede the Irish chasers.

Given just how good Ireland were with ball in hand against Wales, it might appear silly to suggest Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton should now revisit aspects of their kicking game. The team that brings the most variety to the way they attack, whether through the hand or the boot, proves the most difficult to play against.

In that respect, Ireland appeared to get the balance wrong for long periods last season. It’s the half-backs’ job to keep the opposition back three guessing and on their toes. If the wingers are up flat in the defensive line, the full back has acres of grass to cover. At their best, Murray and Sexton are brilliant at exploiting that space.

Serious question marks still hang over Elliot Daly’s ability to handle the aerial challenge. South Africa made that tell to devastating effect in the World Cup final. Eddie Jones had stubbornly kept him at full back and the Springboks exposed him on the biggest stage of all.

Jones appeared to have acknowledged his error when repositioning Daly on the wing in the opening two games of this championship, replacing him with Northampton’s George Furbank. With Furbank now ruled out due to injury, Daly is back in the firing line.

Sexton must now test him in the manner that he exposed Anthony Watson at full-back in the corresponding game two years ago when his fumble in the opening minutes opened the door for a Garry Ringrose try after only five minutes. That score set Ireland on their way. With Jonathan Joseph, normally a centre, also starting on the wing for the first time in his 50th cap, Ireland’s half-backs are duty bound to test him out also.

I’m not suggesting that Ireland abandon the refreshing attacking shape Farrell has been developing in tandem with attack coach Mike Catt, but if the opposition have chinks in certain areas, then you have to test those potential frailties early on and make decisions based on the outcome, as the Springboks did when they exposed England’s scrum in the World Cup final.

England have been found wanting when forced to chase games therefore Ireland not only need to start well but convert any early dominance on the scoreboard. If they manage to do that, they have a chance, even if wins on the road in this championship are difficult to come by.

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