As a tough Six Nations campaign ends, Ireland can finish it on a high
So once more unto the breach go Ireland, one last hurrah in this strangest of RBS 6 Nations championships, against England at Twickenham.
Declan Kidney has refused to consider the ramifications, the possibilities and what might have beens from a string of incidents that have contrived to make this 2012 campaign so frustrating for player and supporter alike. And who would blame him? There have been so many.
Yet while Kidney has put everything on hold until after today’s game, all that Ireland have been through to date in this Six Nations will manifest itself at Twickenham today.
Whatever the circumstances of that opening defeat at home to Wales back on February 5, Ireland were second best that day and have picked themselves up considerably over the following three games.
That those three games — wins over Italy and Scotland in Dublin either side of a draw in Paris against France — have come on consecutive weekends, however, means that no matter how steady the progress made from match to match, the good work could easily come to a crashing halt today in a fourth successive, high-intensity collision with a fast-improving and buoyant England side.
Just as marathoners hit a wall, Ireland’s battle-weary side must find a way to break through the pain barrier and maintain a hugely impressive record at English headquarters that has seen the men in green win on three of their last four visits.
The talk from the camp is positive, the players’ rest and recovery protocols appear to have been well managed and there is the added boon that this final game, this fourth trial in as many weeks, comes against a team the Irish have no trouble motivating themselves to play.
There is also much to be said for Ireland’s greater experience going into this game, as England’s caretaker boss Stuart Lancaster sends out a team with just two starting players — Dylan Hartley and Tom Croft — who have collected more than 30 caps. Ireland will have eight, while Donncha O’Callaghan alone has made more Test appearances than the entire England back line, who boast just 79 caps between them.
Yet there is something intangible about this new-look England team, cobbled together by Lancaster and his assistants, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell and led by Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw in the wake of their country’s World Cup debacle.
Last Sunday they achieved something Ireland failed to do just a fortnight previously, which was beating France in their own backyard.
Both teams had led Philippe Saint-Andre’s side at half-time, Ireland enjoying a 17-6 cushion while England led 14-9. Yet is was the latter which prevailed, in spite of a sin-binning just after the interval, while Ireland failed to score a point in their second half at Stade de France.
Comparisons can only tell you so much, of course, but while Ireland bounced back from the disappointment of a draw in Paris (and who would have thought that would have been the case from an Irish performance in France?) to beat Scotland convincingly, England also proved last weekend they are a team on the up, playing for each each other and intent on bringing some life back to that wilting Red Rose.
Which brings us to today’s game. A meeting that is the product of all that has gone before. Two teams on the up having started from very different places; one that will be ruing what might have been and the other for which the only way is up after the disaster that was their World Cup last October. Ireland should have what it takes to engage their experience and superior finishing power in a game that pits the highest-scoring team in the championship in terms of tries and points against a home side whose six five-pointers have not hinted at any flair for the creative.
That is not to say England cannot pose awkward questions of Ireland’s defence. Far from it. The hard-running, take-no-prisoners breaks of No. 8 Ben Morgan and centre Manu Tuilagi last Sunday in Paris as well as the deftly-taken try scored by back-rower Croft are proof of the threats in this England side. Yet if the Irish can go to the well one last time and overcome the physical toll this relentless campaign has already taken on minds and bodies to continue their upward curve of recent weeks, there should be something meaningful to take from this year’s Six Nations after all.
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