‘Huge’ win could signal brave new world for Ireland

The championship starts here, or so Ireland hope as Joe Schmidt sends his new-look team onto the Twickenham pitch today in a bid to kick-start the champions’ RBS 6 Nations campaign at the third attempt.
‘Huge’ win could signal brave new world for Ireland

There is no doubt that facing unbeaten England on their home turf and with their tails up at the start of the post-World Cup, Eddie Jones era is asking an awful lot of the young men the Irish head coach is entrusting to do that job.

It may backfire and when it does at Twickenham it has often ended horribly for Ireland teams.

On the other hand, this could just be the start of a brave new world for the national side, the beginning of an era and the end of a period of feeling sorry for ourselves in the bleak world of life without Messrs O’Driscoll and O’Connell.

Ireland’s performance in the first 30 minutes against Wales in round one gave us a glimpse of the attacking potential within Schmidt’s new team as they made light of the absences through retirement and injury, dominated the breakdown, got over the gainline, and emerged with points every time they entered the Welsh 22. It all got a bit ropey after that.

A 13-0 lead was surrendered as Wales hit back, turning the screw at scrum-time and earning a 16-16 draw at the Aviva Stadium and it was a similar story six days later at Stade de France. The fast start did not translate into points, however, but the scrum inferiority continued and the second try conceded in the championship came in the same manner as the first, off the back of the set-piece. The result, a one-point defeat to France and no try scored since the 27th minute of game one.

The odds continue to stack up against Ireland here in south-west London. England are yet to concede a try under their bullish new head coach Jones and his defence coach Paul Gustard while Ireland have sustained further casualties, Sean O’Brien, Dave Kearney, Tadgh Furlong and Mike McCarthy adding their names to an injury list already featuring Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Iain Henderson, Marty Moore and Peter O’Mahony.

And yet. The missing in action have forced Schmidt’s hand and produced a team that now looks ready to cast off the shackles. There will be Twickenham debuts for in-form youngsters Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier and, possibly, Ultan Dillane off the bench.

Furthermore the return to fitness of Keith Earls to the wing and Simon Zebo as back three cover brings some cutting edge and invention that Ireland’s play is crying out for.

Having McCloskey at inside centre and Robbie Henshaw outside him gives Schmidt a midfield partnership of power, pace and skills that can get Ireland over the gainline and provide that back three with the opportunities to test that English defence.

Just how resolute Gustard’s defensive line actually is will be put under the microscope this afternoon as England’s first two opponents Scotland and Italy cannot be said to have offered a proper test.

Indeed Schmidt admitted it was difficult to put his finger on any definitive patterns of England’s style under Jones after just two games, other than the men in white had freedom to play. What he is sure of, though, is that Ireland will have to hit the ground running if they are to contain an England backline of great potency with George Ford and Owen Farrell as its pivots.

“It’s hugely dangerous to start poorly,” Schmidt said. “Last year (in August), they were up 12-3 very early on and it could have been 20-3. They blew us off the park in the first 20 minutes and we were easing our way into World Cup preparation and I don’t think you can afford to be caught on the back foot in the manner that we were last time we were there.

“The time before (in the 2014 Six Nations), it wasn’t too dissimilar. They went very, very close to scoring early on.

“I thought it was an unbelievably good Test match, I know it was only 13-10 with one try apiece, but we got so close to scoring another couple of tries and they got even closer to scoring another two or three themselves — it was end to end stuff.

“Sometimes, as it was with Wales in the first round of the Six Nations, it was really end to end stuff. While both teams didn’t quite capitalise on a number of chances, the quality of the Test match was maybe even world class, to coin a phrase.

“My expectation is that they are going to be physical, that they are going to start fast, that they will be well coached and cohesive and that they have a real continuity of selection; there has been very few changes in the last three weeks and they have been more tinkering than wholesale and even then, if you go back to the two previous visits that we’ve had, it’s very similar personnel.”

It is, then, a lot to expect of Ireland’s new boys to cope with that expected early onslaught from the English as they make their first trip back to Twickenham since their World Cup pool nightmare at the hands of Wales and Australia. If McCloskey, van der Flier and the twice-capped CJ Stander can hold up their end of the deal, however, then Ireland could be set for more than a good afternoon and Schmidt recognises a win would be something special given the circumstances.

“I think it would be huge. Any time you get a win at Twickenham, we probably haven’t had the best of run-ins (previously), one of the things we are confident about is our preparation window, so one of the reasons we feel that Stu is there is because he got a bit of continuity in training.

“I mean, before France we had one training session really and we made a number of changes. And then we had to make a change at the 20-minute mark and at the 30-minute mark. Our continuity into the game is much better, much as we have made changes and there are some personnel not available we are really excited about even going. But there would be a touch of euphoria if we got the result because you have a little bit of breathing space before you have to get back up for Italy and Scotland at the end of it with that week to rebuild yourself.”

The possibility is intriguing.

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