If Joe Schmidt could get a mulligan for one moment of what turned out to be a fairly average 2019 for Ireland, you’d guess it would be the first 20 minutes of the Six Nations campaign.
It was in that opening quarter of that first-round championship match at home to England that Ireland went from being on top of the world to also-rans — out-muscled and overrun by a powerhouse, full-strength side.
The ripples from those painful moments in February of last year would gather momentum over the following months, culminating and result in that most disappointing of World Cup campaigns in Japan, from which Schmidt’s successor Andy Farrell must rebuild.
So far, so good for the new head coach, with two wins from two kicking off his tenure and Ireland’s 2020 Guinness Six Nations, but this weekend’s trip to Twickenham and a Sunday afternoon clash with a side that enjoyed a considerably more profitable Japanese campaign in Japan offers a timely reminder that if a green revival is to continue, then a fast start against Eddie Jones’ men is essential.
Robbie Henshaw certainly thinks so.
The centre is set to retain the number 13 jersey when Farrell unveils his team selection this afternoon, having completed his return-to-play protocols following a failed head injury assessment after his that followed clash of heads with Dan Biggar 11 days ago as Ireland were on their way to a bonus-point, round-two win over Wales in Dublin.
Yet it was a previous experience at Aviva Stadium that was occupying minds at the Ireland training base in Abbotstown yesterday — that horrible opening at home against the English 12 months ago. Where did it all go wrong, Henshaw was asked.
“Probably one key thing was our start in the game,” he replied. “We probably let them get a quick start, which gave them momentum so … one thing where we allowed them to start quick and they got the first score so that was probably one thing but, again, it is hard to pinpoint on one certain thing that went wrong.
“Definitely it’s down to the work you do in the week as well, in training, what you put yourself through and how well you are doing your work on and off the pitch. It all builds up to how you put it down on the weekend. I think the preparation is key to that.”
While a slow start spells trouble, not finding a way back into games after such a loss of momentum threatens to lead to a complete disaster.
“That’s it, that’s key,” Henshaw agreed, “the fast start, again, is huge. You see it in a lot of games nowadays, that the team that does start well seems to have the upper hand.
“If you find yourself in that position where the other team starts well you have to reset and make sure you have that kind of calmness and don’t be too panicked and make sure you reset and go again.”
The good news for Ireland supporters is that Henshaw thinks the confidence and calmness required for the team to fight its way out of such trouble is gathering pace once more.
“It’s about building week-on-week. We have had two good weeks in terms of two good results against Scotland and Wales and it’s about building again this week and trying to up the ante and bring it to another level. So it is taking it to the next level and trying to pull out the best result we can on the weekend.”
The absence of both the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, is certainly a boost to Ireland’s confidence levels given the damage the pair both players did in Dublin that day 54 weeks ago, yet Farrell will also have had his own selection issues since last time out.
While having Henshaw available to partner Bundee Aki in midfield is welcome, given Garry Ringrose’s hand injury, there will be some temptation to reintroduce Caelan Doris to the Ireland back row.
Doris enjoyed an impactful, but short Test debut at No.8 in the opening-day win over Scotland on February 1 before a concussion forced him off the field and then out of the following week’s clash with Wales.
Given the Leinster youngster’s seemingly bullet-proof confidence on the big stage, a start against England at Twickenham does not look likely to faze the 21-year-old, but there is also a convincing is the argument for old and in-form heads in the shape of Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, whose performances against the Welsh were pivotal to that victory.
Should Doris even make the bench? Max Deegan made his debut off the bench in Doris’ absence against Wales andacquitted himself well, following up with a barnstorming stint at No.8 against theCheetahs last weekend.
All will be revealed at 2pm today when Farrell plays his hand.