What goes around comes around. A year after bursting England’s bubble and ending a Grand Slam dream in Dublin, Ireland stand on the brink of similar glory as they prepare to storm Twickenham today.
It has been an arduous path to this point, from the drama of Stade de France and the losses to injury of Josh van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell in successive games to the joyous moment of relief as Jacob Stockdale picked off Gareth Anscombe’s pass to score under the posts and finally quell a Welsh resurgence.
Last Saturday at the Aviva Stadium brought further release as Ireland, with a lot of help from a profligate visiting backline, snuffed out a potent and confident Scottish raiding party and then sat back and watched the English title bid similarly extinguished in Paris.
A remarkable 14 points from a possible 15 and Ireland are 2018 NatWest Six Nations champions. Yet the greatest prize is still to be won and it is England, a vengeful, angry group given their Dublin disappointment 12 months ago, who represent the final roadblock.
The echoes of last year’s meeting are striking, albeit with roles reversed and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt remembers exactly how wounded his players had been as they prepared for the 2017 finale having lost both their opening game in Scotland and their penultimate contest in Cardiff.
Passion and emotion undoubtedly played their parts in contributing to the 13-9 victory that left England with the hollow feeling of being crowned champions after letting slip the only prize they really craved, a Grand Slam.
Schmidt, though, recognises it took more than just those raw elements to achieve that win and the same will apply when his team seeks to dampen English fire on their home turf this afternoon.
“I think your passion and emotion drives you forward in a game. It makes you as determined as you can be,” Schmidt said. “But it has a lifespan in a match, there’s got to be something that’s contagious about getting you further motivated during a game.
“For us, we were lucky last year, because it was three-all, we went up 10-3 and that first try that got scored (by Iain Henderson) was the only try of the match in the end. Getting that try in the first quarter, that sparked a bit of confidence and a real determination that, if we could stay in front, obviously you get the result at the end of the day.
“I think it’s got to be, that passion and determination, it’s got to be balanced with a degree of confidence and a degree of building through the match.
“Not just, ‘right we’re going to be passionate at the start’ because that will start to fall off if things go against you and you’re under pressure the whole time because mentally it is very hard to stay up all the time.”
That will especially be the case in a high-intensity game that the Ireland boss is expecting to contested at breakneck speed by two teams with plenty to prove.
For his own side, there is the motivation to emulate their heroes of 2009 and join them in Irish sporting folklore as just the third team to achieve the Slam. For Eddie Jones’s England today’s game represents the opportunity to silence the doubters now raising questions after two successive defeats on the road, that this is not a team capable of challenging New Zealand’s status as the undisputed kings of world rugby.
Throw in the added dynamic of a visiting team threatening to inflict a third straight defeat on the home side and in doing so record the first loss of the three-season Jones era at this famous stadium and the fact that Ireland last weekend jostled England out of second place in the world rankings and you have quite the recipe for a helter-skelter contest.
As volatile as the scenario that an Irish win could consign the English to fifth place in the final championship standings while a home victory will send them back to number two in the rankings.
Desperation, to put it another way, will be a driving force at Twickenham with so much on the line for both teams.
High tempo? You bet, said Schmidt. “I think so because I do think that England will want to play. They will want to come at us, they will want to have the ball on the pitch and they will work hard to make sure that’s the case.
“As much as all of the myths and evaluations of game minutes get thrown around there, 44 minutes of ball-in-play time in our Scotland game was about 10 minutes more than the average, it’s something that could well be repeated this weekend because they are desperate to win and so are we.
“Maybe they will have a plan on how to do it and it will be based on a real balance of being smart and physical.”
The plan concocted by Schmidt’s opposite number Jones appears in some ways as desperate as the motivation behind it with a raft of selection changes from last week’s surrender to France, when for the second week running, England’s Premiership-influenced, hands-off approach at the breakdown was exploited by an opposition side more than happy to make hay at ruck time, garnering penalties, turning over ball and at the very least slowing English ball down to a snail’s pace.
Jones has decided enough is enough but while he accepted changing his players’ habits would take 18 months to implement, he has jettisoned the chief culprits and picked a team he is convinced can get his side back on the front foot in order to atone for those defeats at Murrayfield and Stade de France.
An epic encounter awaits in Twickenham tomorrow!
A win for last year's Champions or a Grand Slam for Ireland?March 16, 2018
At the same time, the England boss has had to adjust to the loss of his two most effective ball carriers in the injured Courtney Lawes and Nathan Hughes, bringing his line-up changes to seven with three positional switches.
Compared with the fluency and consistency of Ireland’s selections that represents a serious gamble by the home coach.
It is up to Ireland to exploit the situation, deny England that front-foot ball they crave and silence the Twickenham crowd with a dominant opening quarter before building from there as Schmidt described last year’s performance.
The England coaching staff have been adamant this week that despite losing their last two games they have been the stronger finishers, “winning” the last 20 minutes of both contests, yet Jones’s sweeping changes to his starting line-up have also left his much-vaunted finishers looking less than impactful, certainly at tighthead prop, fly-half and full-back.
In a high-tempo game likely to be decided by those oft-cited fine margins, that could be a telling mistake as Ireland look to finish this game and this championship in style.
A place in history beckons and this is an Ireland team to seize the opportunity.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved