The tactical breakdown of today’s Twickenham showdown
1. Can Ireland stop the twin threat presented by Danny Care and Billy Vunipola?
England’s game revolves hugely around the energy brought to their play by Danny Care at scrum half and the ability of Billy Vunipola to suck in defenders and get over the gain line.
In the same way Warren Gatland set out to negate the influence of Sean O’Brien in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final, Joe Schmidt must do likewise to curb the influence Vunipola has enjoyed since winning his first cap against Argentina last June.
The 21-year-old is not only an outstanding ball carrier but is already generating comparison with New Zealand No 8 Kieran Reid in terms of his offloading ability.
Ireland had a very clear strategy at the breakdown against Wales with the chop tackle used to good effect to curb the threat posed by Dan Lydiate, Jamie Roberts and George North with the supporting Irish player making no effort to involve himself in the tackle and therefore free to contest for possession immediately the tackled player hit the deck. It worked brilliantly with Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip particularly impressive in going for the poach.
Vunipola is young and inexperienced at this level and has come into the championship somewhat under the radar. Not any more. Just as England are sure to have worked tirelessly to address the threat posed by Ireland’s maul, be assured that Schmidt and John Plumtree have devised a strategy for dealing with the powerful England back rower. It will be interesting to see how he deals with being singled out for special attention.
Likewise Care is a livewire at the base of the ruck and maul and is the one who dictates the tempo for England. He will tap and go on all free kicks and controls when and where his pack release possession. England have been excellent at getting bodies beyond the ball at ruck time, producing the type of quick recycle that Care thrives on. His searing pace dictates that the opposing back row have to stay honest and defend his channel first and foremost which buys an extra second for Owen Farrell.
Schmidt’s message to the Irish back row and Conor Murray will be clear — stop Care, stop England. Of more importance, he will have drawn up a plan to make sure they know exactly how to go about it.
2. Can England find a way to stop Ireland’s line out maul?
In the same way that England’s scrum dominance became the decisive factor in this contest two years ago, Ireland have the capacity through the expertise of their lineout maul to garner a significant advantage in the key battle up front. The only problem is that having delivered tries in successive games against New Zealand, Scotland and Wales, you can be sure that England’s forward coach Graham Rowntree has been tasked with devising a means of succeeding where the Welsh failed miserably despite devoting much time in the build-up to derailing the inevitable Irish assault.
That will hardly come as a surprise to Schmidt who may decide that with the English back row tasked with holding their ground and adding weight to the defensive effort at repelling the Irish maul from close in, Ireland could decide to shift the point of attack away from those early close in lineouts. England’s resistance to their drive will be tested initially from a midfield position early on and assessed from there.
With the Twickenham crowd fully up to speed with the potency of Ireland’s maul, they will make sure that any success in stifling it will be greeted with a thunderous response, offering a massive psychological boost to England. On the flip side, if Ireland succeed in driving this massive English pack backwards early on, with so many young forwards on board, they may find it difficult to recover.
I also expect Rowntree will have been in the ear of referee Craig Joubert during the week, claiming Ireland’s maul is illegal, which it isn’t unless there are no English defenders attached. Sometimes the opposition team take a risk and don’t engage their opponents once the lineout maul is formed. With no defenders in situ, the players ahead of the ball carrier for the mauling team are guilty of obstruction. It is akin to playing offside in soccer but much more difficult to get the timing right. If even one defender is left attached to the maul, then it is legal.
3. Can Ireland utilise their superior kicking game to keep England guessing?
Apart from a few loose efforts early on, Ireland gave a masterclass in tactical kicking against Wales. The variety of their kicking game, be it box kicks, raking diagonals into the corners or hanging up and unders measured to perfection enabling the chasers to contest and in a number of cases regain possession, was superb.
The other plus was in the spreading of that responsibility and workload. While Johnny Sexton was particularly impressive, both Conor Murray and Rob Kearney also executed to perfection. Even Peter O’Mahony chipped in with one sublime grubber for good measure.
England’s game very much revolves on controlling territory so I expect Schmidt will seek to take them out of their comfort zone and pin them back in their own half. While England’s full back Mike Brown is superb under the high ball and offers a big threat on the counter-attack if his space is not cut down quickly, the jury is still out on the capabilities of England’s new wingers when the ball is put behind them. With just two caps each and playing in Twickenham for the first time, Sexton must look to turn them and close them down.
Jack Nowell looked especially nervous on his debut against France but to his credit recovered well and contributed positively with ball in hand against Scotland. Jonny May is a talented runner but is still looking for a permanent home having featured in the centre, at full back and on the wing for the Cherry and Whites this season. That could leave him slightly exposed and isolated and Sexton will test his mettle early on.
The big question today is whether Ireland will kick quite as much as they did against Wales in a game-plan that was devised for more disruptive weather conditions or revert to the more structured, attacking phase play that characterised Schmidt’s time with Leinster. Either way the Irish backline looks more seasoned, accomplished and balanced than their opposite numbers.
“If the pack manages to generate sufficient quality ball then that could be the key difference between the two sides.
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