Andy Farrell began this week by warning his Ireland squad of the danger of turning up at Twickenham merely hoping it goes well.
Yesterday, before his team jumped on the plane to Heathrow for tomorrow’s seemingly pivotal game in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations so far, the captain doubled down on his head coach’s message. Johnny Sexton knows Ireland are back on an upward curve following a miserable 2019. A narrow victory over Scotland on February 1 made for a difficult opening game under new management but the following week’s bonus-point win against Wales marked a big improvement in performance levels.
Beating the Scots and the defending champions at home is one thing. What both Farrell and Sexton will be absolutely certain of is that facing England on their own patch will be the litmus test of this post-World Cup recovery and anything less than being their best in every facet will contribute to a difficult afternoon for the visitors.
Simply repeating the performance that did for Wales will not do.
“To do that this week would be harder because England would have seen that and they’ll come hard at us, and we’ve got to figure out how to implement our gameplan on them,” Sexton said. “That’s where they’re really good, it’s at disrupting, and getting in amongst you and making it hard.
“So we’ve got to be really accurate and then it’s a bit like the physicality, in terms of getting your game going, you need the set-piece to go well and you need the ruck to go well, you need to be good with the ball in the air, you need to be good with the ball on the ground. So there’s lots of things that need to happen to play well.”
All those things happened at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day 2018 when Ireland delivered a near-perfect performance for then-head coach Joe Schmidt to secure the Grand Slam. It was a display that should provide plenty of positivity for the team returning there this weekend, though the 24-15 result was an outlier for Ireland at the stadium, both before and since.
England’s HQ does not cough up too many away wins, the 2018 victory was just the second in a decade and one of only four in Six Nations history.
“We’ve had tough times there and come just on the wrong side of the scoreboard sometimes,” Conor Murray said this week, “so it’s not like that was just a once-off. The fear factor going there isn’t as big as what it used to be. The respect of the English side is there, though.
“We’ve had times when we’ve gone there with a really good attitude and just missed out — obviously the 2018 game is going to stand out as it was for a Grand Slam. It is probably the biggest memory over there. It is tough to perform there and takes a massive amount of prep and mindset. We are moving nicely.”
If Ireland managed to replicate that 2018 preparation this week, they will have travelled in very good heart.
“That whole week, our attitude and our mindset was really good,” Murray recalled. “We knew we had to go to Twickenham and perform, not to take risks or chances but to go after the game and attack the game. I thought we did that really well. It was one of our best performances defensively. That really helped overall. Before half-time, our decision to run a play — Jacob (Stockdale) scored with a chip and chase — having the willingness to go and chase that, a lot of teams might have waited until the 40 minutes (was up) and kicked it out. That day, that season we backed ourselves which was fantastic.”
What has followed since may have dampened that gusto, particularly the two heavy defeats to England, both at home in February 2019 and last August in the build-up to the World Cup when they handed Ireland a 57-15 steamrollering. Yet while the bounce is returning, so too are England gathering momentum under Eddie Jones. Sexton bridled yesterday at the suggestion Ireland were not physically built to deal with the likes of Maro Itoje, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Curry and the like, even if Vunipola brothers Mako and Billy will be absent tomorrow.
The failure to win collisions was the foundation of England’s big wins over Ireland last year but Sexton hit back at the suggestion it was down to a genetic mismatch.
“Cian Healy, James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander – they’re pretty physical to me. Josh (van der Flier) is pretty physical. Robbie Henshaw… I think physically we can match them, but there are lots of things that need to go into matching them physically ... Winning the physical battle isn’t just about size, it’s about the little bits around that; being lower, all those things.
I wouldn’t say they’re way bigger than us or way stronger than us, but we’re going to have to find ways to deal with their physicality and I think we’ve got some of it ourselves.”
Ireland will need to have that abrasive edge from the first whistle if they are to secure the Triple Crown and maintain their unbeaten start to this championship. England are at home, reached the World Cup final last November by dismantling the All Blacks and, as Sexton also pointed out, are in a far better place than they were back in 2018. Which is why Ireland will need to be better again. Defeat for Ireland tomorrow should not derail the Andy Farrell train so early into the journey but if they manage a victory at Twickenham, it really will be full steam ahead.