Ireland look to bloom in Twickenham

Ball-carrying English forwards and breaking midfield pose threat at Twickenham

John O'Sullivan looks ahead to the three key battles for England versus Ireland this weekend.

Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 00:06

Ireland in Twickenham: possibly the best place to see an Irish victory and the worst place to behold an Irish defeat, not least as the former have generally been thrillingly close, with the latter usually a thrashing to the backdrop of low-swinging chariots.

As much as anywhere, the end-game soundtrack will reveal all. Whatever about it being the self-styled home of rugby, it’s one of the true citadels of the global game, one of the great stadiums and there’s something special about hearing the vast swathes of Irish ex-pats and travelling supporters becoming more audible towards the end of a victory and well into the night afterwards.

“It’s a cool stadium,” said Rob Kearney after yesterday’s captain’s run. “I was talking to a few of the guys out there. It’s really nice, there’s always a great atmosphere. The English always put on a good show, they really get behind their team, it’s noisy and we like playing in noisy stadiums because that’s what creates the buzz.”

It’s likely to be a close game, and history has shown us that it has to be if Ireland are to win. Those three wins on the last five visits have been by four, four and six points. Indeed, Ireland haven’t won by more than six points at Twickenham in 60 years. Yet Ireland’s last five defeats here have been by 21, 23, 34, 32 and 22 points.

When it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.

England’s scrummaging
Therein lies the fear that something goes wrong or a key man is injured, akin to Mike Ross in the scrum debacle of two years ago. Yet the loss of Dan Cole has highlighted the shallow reserves of English tight-heads with David Wilson hauled back into action after barely half a game in two months. Indeed, with the advent of the new scrum rules and the emergence of Jack McGrath and Marty Moore, conceivably this could become an Irish strength as the game progresses.

Although Ireland have not played an awful lot of rugby to earn their opening two wins, an almost irrational optimism abounds. It is founded partially on the potency of the maul. Forewarned and forearmed, England have a younger, stronger more dynamic pack which will assuredly defend Ireland’s maul better, yet there could still be points there too, and we know Johnny Sexton will kick his goals.

Admittedly, Ireland will not extract as much joy from the lineout as they did against Wales, for England’s organisation and ability here is very good – witness Dylan Hartley’s 20 out of 20 return in Murrayfield.

Versatile forwards
Where England can also hurt Ireland is with their array of big ball-carrying forwards, Billy Vunipola, and they also have Mako Vunipola and Ben Morgan to spring from the bench. Throw in the threat of a liberated and live wire Danny Care

and if Ireland are to win this you sense they will have to draw a line in the sand around the fringes that Conor Murray, the back-row and then after phases the pillars will have to regroup, step up and make their tackles count.

There is also the nagging fear of England’s unknown factor to which Rory Best alluded earlier in the week and defence coach Les Kiss yesterday admitted feared the same thing. Unlike the last two visits, the rain has stayed away. And while he anticipated the two packs sorting each other, “there is a part of me thinking ‘what will they throw on top of what they have?’ I think they’re a well organised team and a well-coached team and when you are well organised and well coached you can actually expand pretty quickly on what you’re trying to achieve.”

Kiss also echoed Rob Kearney’s view that inexperience also equates to fearlessness. For us we need to be disciplined and we need to have our heads turned on for the whole game because I think they can easily add another dimension to their game based on how well organised they are.”

Sometimes younger inexperienced sides beat older sides. But Ireland have vastly more of the proven grey matter at this level, albeit that seven of the 11 English players who have faced Ireland have never lost to them, whereas only four Irish players have a winning ratio against the men in white.

On his farewell to Twickenham, Brian O’Driscoll equals George Gregan’s world record haul of 139 Tests and Ronan O’Gara’s championship landmark of 63. And after his first two visits ended in heavy beatings in 2000 and 2002, O’Driscoll has won on his last three visits there – having been missed in the defeats of 2008 and 2010.

Physical battle
Ireland’s recent record at Twickenham therefore, three wins out of five, is encouraging

and the secret of their relative success, according to Kearney, is quite simple: “You have to muscle up, up front. The England power game is something that has paid huge dividends for them, not only this year but throughout the years.

“If you don’t match them physically up front then you’re going to come off second best. There is a big onus on our forwards tomorrow to make sure that happens and the end result of the game, a lot of that will be determined on how we measure up, up front.”

It will be fascinating to see how Joe Schmidt has helped to plot this one. Ireland have way more experienced generals too, especially at the 10-12-13 axis, where England are relatively raw as well as seemingly quite blunt.

England’s defence presses hard from outside centre up, which very often leaves two inexperienced wingers highly exposed. It was by isolating them that France scored their three tries in Paris, whether with a couple of kicks and lucky bounces, or holding their depth and getting outside the 13 channel. Against that, Ireland haven’t played with much of the width one normally associates with a Schmidt team and their strike moves have not been effective.

Yet well organised though England are under a strong band of coaches, you know that Ireland will have a plan and that the players will adhere to it with the utmost focus. They may just have the footballing smarts and experience to pull through narrowly. Perhaps excessively so, it’s the Schmidt factor as much as anything else. But this English team goes for 80 minutes and will, at the very least, push them all the way.

England : M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), L Burrell (Northampton), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), J May (Gloucester); O Farrell (Saracens), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).

Replacements: T Youngs (Leicester), M Vunipola (Saracens), H Thomas (Sale), D Attwood (Bath), B Morgan (Gloucester), L Dickson (Northampton), G Ford (Bath), A Goode (Saracens) .

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing-Metro 92), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster); D Toner (Leinster), P O’Connell (capt) (Munster); P O’Mahony (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: J McGrath (Leinster), S Cronin (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), J Murphy (Leinster), I Boss (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster).

Referee: C Joubert (South Africa)

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