Next Sunday's showdown with England is beginning to look like a potential title decider
Brian O'Driscoll is congratulated by team-mates after crossing from close range for Ireland's third try just after the half-time break. photograph: dan sheridan/inpho
One down, four to go. In addition to Ireland and England, against all expectations that now applies to the Italians as well, who didn’t so much upset the apple cart as lob a grenade into it yesterday with their stunning and deserved 23-18 win over an off-colour France in Rome yesterday. The net effect is to make next Sunday’s showdown in the Aviva Stadium between Ireland and England appear even more of a potential title decider.
Both teams come into the game buoyed by augmenting end-of-November wins over Argentina and the All Blacks with additional momentum from a stirring first round of matches to the world’s oldest rugby competition – a weekend which eclipsed any in last season’s non-vintage tournament.
After toppling the reigning Grand Slam champions Wales by 30-22 in the Millennium Stadium in Saturday’s thriller, the biggest concern from an Irish perspective is the greater physical toll exacted of them.
Statistics, damned lies and statistics maybe, for although Wales had better figures in every single one of the official Accenture stats, they didn’t in the only one that really matters. Nevertheless, in ultimately winning with 37 per cent of the possession (and 35 per cent of the territory) Ireland were credited with 176 tackles during the course of the 80 minutes, and their own tally will assuredly be higher than that.
Sleight of hand
Rarely has Murray Mexted’s recourse to “the ebb and flow of psychological energy” appeared more apt and, as ever, the crowd were an accurate barometer of the game’s mood. So subdued initially were home team and crowd alike that the 14th minute rendition of The Fields shortly after Brian O’Driscoll’s sleight of hand and vision had set up the first try for Simon ‘Lionel’ Zebo echoed around the sun-kissed Millennium Stadium without a murmur of interruption. But by the very end of a frenzied second half, Irish players were throwing any and all of their bodies on the line.
By contrast, England were credited with 90 and Declan Kidney conceded that to recover completely from their “colossal efforts” for what will probably be an even more physical contest was his biggest post-match concern.
An eight-day turnaround will be welcomed, as was the 1.30pm kick-off which enabled the squad to break with tradition by flying home on Saturday evening. “We have to prepare for it because England provide a completely different challenge to Wales. That’s the thing about this competition: you’d love to say we will just take the week off and go with the same plan again, but the same plan wouldn’t work,” said Kidney.
“We’ll have to train a bit but we’ll have to be really smart in what we do. We ask the players to do that on the pitch and we’re going to have to try and do it off the pitch as well.”
England will arrive with confidence and momentum, a very secure set-piece game, having beaten Scotland comprehensively at the breakdown and, unlike Wales, with a host of in-form players. They also have a very strong bench, which they were able to use more proactively, and might add more ballast to their midfield if Manu Tuilagi returns.
Ireland have put their team announcement back by 48 hours to Friday, when Stuart Lancaster will also announce England’s line-up. Although Kidney admitted that Gordon D’Arcy (dead leg) was his biggest concern, an IRFU statement yesterday said the Irish centre is “recovering well and is expected to return to training later this week”, adding that Brian O’Driscoll (head wound), prop Mike Ross (severe calf cramp), Rob Kearney (stiff back) will train tomorrow, while Peter O’Mahony “took a bang to the head, but felt no ill effects after the game and will follow the graded return to play protocols this week”.
Keith Earls underwent a scan on his return to Dublin and will see a specialist later this week. His injury, along with Ireland’s lack of possession, contributed to the decision not to bring on Eoin Reddan after Conor Murray had been sin-binned, thus obliging O’Driscoll to play scrumhalf.
As well as being Ireland’s most numerous ball carrier and tackler, Seán O’Brien also had to take a couple of lineout throws as the lack of a scrum during Rory Best’s stint in the bin prevented them from bringing on Seán Cronin.
Indeed, at the heart of the defensive effort, as he had been in the offensive game, was some vaguely familiar bloke in a green number 13 jersey. He looked, eh, motivated.
Asked if relieving O’Driscoll of the captaincy had been to provoke such a reaction Kidney responded: “No. Not to provoke. I was very clear with what I said first day. It was to look after him, to give him a chance to look after himself and get himself right. He did it. The other thing (provoking O’Driscoll) would have been to insult him. I felt he needed time. To do what he’s done today given so little (playing) time is outstanding.”
Kidney is almost paranoid about lavishing adjectives on one of his own players, but asked how good O’Driscoll is, the coach said: “Brian’s everything that you write about him. He’s one of the few fellas who lives up to the adjectives you say about a player.”