The scrum, the lineout, and the gainline are areas Ireland must dominate to beat England this Saturday, but where are England most vulnerable? The space between Owen Farrell’s ears.
At least that’s what Peter Stringer thinks. A former team-mate of the England out-half, during his short stay with Saracens, Stringer knows the Lions No 10 better than most Irish players.
“Eddie will have them fired up, and you see the likes of Owen Farrell...he’s in charge of everything they do — being captain and having all that responsibility, but he is a hothead,” Stringer said.
“I’ve played with him, he loves that physical side of things, but you can get under his skin, you can rattle him, he’s a guy they’ll [Ireland] be looking to get after as well.
“If things go well for Farrell on the front foot, he’s a great player, but going backward he’s a guy who loses the rag completely, which you don’t want from your captain.”
Whoa there Stringer, couldn’t the same be said of Johnny Sexton, the Leinster captain lost in the red mist of a Thomond Park evening last month?
“Johnny is a hothead, there is no doubt about it, but in the best possible way for the team,” Stringer countered.
“He doesn’t allow it to get in on top of him in terms of how he performs and plays the game.
“Farrell is likely to do something that could see him in the bin and kind of show that he has lost control of the game. Whereas you always feel Johnny is in control.”
Control — not quite a word you’d associate with Farrell when reviewing some of his ‘tackles’ last November at Twickenham.
The referees will no doubt have been told to be more aware of the need to punish such acts this championship, but anyone expecting a toned-down game this weekend is badly mistaken.
Last year’s 24-15 victory in Twickenham earned Ireland a Grand Slam — it also earned them the visit of a lot of angry Saxons [and a few others...] this weekend.
“You can get under a lot of these guys, you can rattle them,” Stringer said, “Ireland’s discipline is very good, England’s not so much — they’ll be looking to start a scrap at every opportunity, just to rattle Ireland.
“It’s going to be intriguing and how Ireland deal with that will be fascinating, because that physicality, that brutal nature England always bring will be heightened this year.
“They’ll be hurting, they won’t want to see Ireland doing well and going to the World Cup as favourites.”
Ah, the World Cup. Just how important is it as we tip toe into February? Joe Schmidt surely has one eye on Japan and it will inform some selections over the next seven weeks, but can a Six Nations title and the momentum it would bring be cast aside?
From the players’ point of view, Stringer is not buying Schmidt’s claim that he’d be happy to finish second — nor does he think any player will be taking their foot off the pedal with Yokohama in mind.
“It’s [World Cup] in the back of your mind and, from an individual point of view, you want to put your best foot forward, in terms of being on that plane,” he said.
“It’s a case where, yeah there is a bigger picture down the line, but if you don’t have that momentum going into a World Cup and you play poorly, it going to cost you.
“The focus will be on England. There’s no getting away from that, but there is no, ‘oh, we’re in this to finish second.’ That’s just rubbish.
“You’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt. You’ve got to factor in that you maybe rotate a couple of players throughout the campaign and work on combinations. But for the most part, you want to go to that World Cup having done well in the Six Nations.”
Beating England once again, a fully loaded England team at that, would inject even more confidence and self-belief into an Ireland team that has stocked up on it in the last 18 months.
Eddie Jones has players available to him now who were absent last year, with the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi just three of those raring to go.
With Tom Curry, Brad Shields, Maro Itoje, and Joe Launchbury fit, the breakdown could shake Aviva Stadium’s foundations on Saturday.
“England are going to stack a powerful team, they are going to come with the Vunipolas, Launchbury, [Manu] Tuilagi, Te’o, Farrell in that 10 channel, they are going to bring that physicality, it’s going to be tough, it’s a game England will be looking forward to,” Stringer said.
“It’s a great time for England to get Ireland. They are looking at a scalp to build that momentum.
“Looking at these games in the last few years, it has been about that — who can win that gain line?
“Ireland have won it in the last number of years and that has set the tone for Ireland putting England under pressure.
“If England bring that power game, and they’re looking in good shape in terms of the injury profile, for the first time in a long time.... but if they don’t win those basics; the scrum, the lineout and, more importantly, that gain line, it makes your job as a nine, as a 10 more difficult when you are taking a slight backward step rather than moving onto the ball. The difference those few inches make is phenomenal.”
A battle of inches then, on the pitch and in Farrell’s head.
- Peter Stringer was speaking at the launch of the AIB Future Sparks Festival 2019, a student focused event in the RDS on March 14. Visit: www.AIB.ie/FutureSparks #backingstudents #futuresparks