English woes a double-edged sword at Twickenham

Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt at Six Nations Launch.

You know you are in a good place when the first question at a press conference is to consider which of your three Six Nations championships was the most satisfying.

Such was the position Joe Schmidt found himself in on Saturday evening as he stepped out of the post-match banquet to share his thoughts on adding another glittering prize to his impressive coaching resumé.

Silverware in each of his three seasons as Leinster head coach, including two Heineken Cups, and now three Six Nations titles in five years as Ireland’s main man.

In addition, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the historic first ever win in 108 years over his native New Zealand have seared Schmidt’s Ireland into folklore.

The next seven days will determine whether Schmidt can rubber-stamp his status as this country’s greatest head coach as he attempts to engineer one final push towards the Northern Hemisphere’s holy grail, a Grand Slam.

There are considerable obstacles in his and Ireland’s path to glory this Saturday, not least the side they must conquer to reach the promised land. England at Twickenham is the conundrum Schmidt has yet to resolve in his five seasons as a Test head coach.

He may have twice beaten them in Dublin, in 2015 and 2017, but his record in south-west London reads played two, lost two, having gone down 13-10 there to Stuart Lancaster’s side in 2014 and 21-10 two years ago after Eddie Jones had taken the helm.

Throw in the fact that the Australian has yet to experience defeat at home since he became head coach after the 2015 World Cup and the size of the task facing Ireland becomes apparent.

Even the back-to-back defeats for the English away from Twickenham against Scotland and France, which effectively delivered the championship to Ireland’s door a week ahead of schedule, are both a blessing and a curse.

The positives are that the England juggernaut which had been freewheeling under Jones has come to a shuddering halt in the last two rounds.

Ireland had exposed some fault lines in the final game of last year’s Six Nations when their ferocity in contact and at the breakdown unsettled the men in white so much that they let slip their own Grand Slam opportunity.

Twelve months on and the same fragility has been exploited by both the Scots and French in successive games.

To borrow that well-worn phrase from Dad’s Army’s panicky war veteran Corporal Jones, the English “don’t like it up ’em”. It will be in Ireland’s interests to apply similar pressure, even if it is in a backyard festooned with red roses.

Jones knows this is a problem yet has seemed unable to render the suitable fix and, following the narrow defeat in Paris on Saturday night, admitted as much in a surprisingly downbeat assessment of his own and his team’s capabilities after England had been turned over nine times and conceded 16 penalties.

Every time we have a breakdown they put pressure on our breakdown. When they have a breakdown we don’t put pressure on them and they’re getting faster ball and we’re getting slower ball. They’ve got more numbers on their feet than we’ve got, it’s very simple, it’s not one we have to work out, said Jones.

“I just think our players are used to playing a certain way and we’re finding it hard to change their habits, and again that’s our responsibility and my coaching is not good enough.”

Contrast that with the confidence Ireland will take into Twickenham having secured an Irish-record 11 wins in a row and having outsmarted the same Scotland side England could not a light candle to.

Yet Schmidt and his players have been around the block long enough to understand that the very problems besetting the English will also engender something more dangerous at an emotional level.

Already peeved at having been denied their back-to-back slam in Dublin 12 months ago, they have now been robbed of what would have been a first three-in-a-row Six Nations titles and will not take kindly to seeing their Irish rivals complete their own history on English turf.

There promises to be a week of soul-searching among Jones and his coaching staff and a playing group wounded by the criticism now coming their way. It is enough to keep Ireland on their toes and keep preparations at just the pitch Schmidt demands, title or no title.

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