Twickenham provides opportunity to repeat 2004 watershed Triple Crown
A crushing defeat at Twickenham in 2012 marked the start of a new era for Irish rugby
In 2004 Ireland won a Triple Crown that ignited an unrivalled period of success. It was the transfer of Munster’s winning mentality and Leinster’s unreal talent onto the international stage.
Winning at Twickenham became the expected.
Now, 10 years later, a new Irish team can write a new post- Grand Slam chapter by regaining the initiative at the old stadium. People can dismiss the Triple Crown but it would mean Joe Schmidt’s squad have something not held by an Ireland team since 2009. Silverware.
There’s no harder place to go and do this.
I can’t say I played England at Twickenham but I do know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a terrible thumping from them. What made 2003 even worse was they won the Grand Slam at our expense in Dublin.
The last great English side went down to New Zealand and won that summer before capturing the world cup in Australia but their 42-6 victory can also been seen as a watershed moment for Irish rugby.
I was on the bench. Got a run near the bitter end. We made impressive inroads early on, attacking them out wide but we were slamming into men with the deepest well of belief.
We weren’t quite there yet. I remember being in awe of Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back.
I know that’s a bad attitude but they really were larger than life figures in the game. An intimidating and different breed when they pulled on the England jersey. Their ferocity and physicality, up close and personal, was a sight to behold.
Much like Paul O’Connell might be viewed by the current English players. There is an element of fear that needs controlling when a younger man is facing Paul. But you get stuck in and suddenly believe you have a chance.
Then he comes back at you and his team-mates are visibly inspired – best example being Peter O’Mahony’s turnover after he smashed Dan Lydiate two weeks ago.
Any great leader, be it Johnson or O’Connell, turns the sum of a team’s parts into one unrelenting force. You can see the crippling doubt in your opponent’s eyes. That’s the best feeling you can get on a rugby pitch.
It’s like what I said last week about the surge of adrenaline that comes before an effective five-metre lineout maul. The defending lineout know what’s coming but there’s nothing they can do about it.
Aura of invincibility
Anyway, within a year of England thrashing us at Lansdowne Road, their aura of invincibility had disappeared.
A very different side, ageing and without the retired John- son, were beaten at Twickenham by a very similar Ireland side. Keith Wood had also hung up his boots but Ireland were a younger, hungrier and mentally stronger outfit.
As the result proved.
I was injured having single- handedly saved Irish rugby when sacrificing my shoulder against Argentina in Adelaide the previous October. Not that I can dine out on that try any more. Too many great moments by men in green jerseys have happened since.
The 2004 win was the start of all this because a massive belief lifted so many Irish players to new heights. Victories over England followed in 2005, 2006 and the famous 2007 hammering at Croke Park, before Twickenham once again showed how cruel an environment it can be.
It was a day that put Danny Cipriani up in lights while ending Eddie O’Sullivan’s time in charge.
We won there again in 2010 before the disaster that was St Patrick’s Day two years ago reopened the old gap. Mike Ross’s departure with the score at 9-6 and the complete capitulation of our scrum thereafter won’t be happening on Saturday.
Dan Cole’s loss to England is massive, as would Ross’s be to Ireland’s scrum, just not on the scale of 2012 because Marty Moore has come through as tighthead cover. That said, entering this environment is a massive ask for a 22-year-old.
In many ways, that crushing defeat two years ago marked the start of a new era for Irish rugby. The new Irish leaders – like Kearney, Sexton, O’Mahony and Heaslip –got to experience how it felt to return to a dressingroom with Swing Lo w ringing in their ears.
There’s no better place in the Northern Hemisphere to learn the hard way than Twick- enham. It leaves the current generation with a choice – accept that hiding as the norm or do something about it – lea- ding us nicely to this weekend.
Face our maul
I think it’s important we don’t disappoint England – they expect to face our maul so we should give it to them. Within reason, give them what they want but a smart, tactical approach must also be employed.
Stuart Lancaster’s greatest achievement so far is the external image of team England. It’s harder to hate them now. The arrogance has been bottled and shelved on his watch, replaced by an admirable humility – a team painted in his own likeness. His is a hard-working, talented squad gelling together with the bigger picture of the World Cup 2015 in mind.
We have no axe to grind over the coming days as Lancaster cleverly silenced the off-the- field “banter” that makes it so easy to hate the English. There is a disciplined feel to them now.
Their obvious weakness is inexperience. The starting Irish pack boasts 148 more caps.
I think the English lineout can be exposed. Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are powerful, mobile specimens but they are miles off the aerial status of O’Connell, or Devin Toner for that matter.
Even the never-ending Springbok Victor Matfield cites Paulie as the ultimate lineout operator. The Northampton duo, Lawes and Dylan Hartley, can conceivably be outfoxed on England’s throw.
To win outright, however, a little more than just meeting and matching England in the contact area will be required. The fruition, ideally, from a fortnight of Joe Schmidt’s evolving master plan, will see some Leinster strike plays off solid first-phase possession.
The war of attrition must not go on for 80 minutes – that would suit England more than Ireland.
Andy Farrell seems their most important coach at the moment. The same man who provided a defensive structure for Sexton, O’Driscoll, Heaslip and O’Connell to learn during the Lions tour, that knowledge can be used to Ireland’s advantage.
Nothing will be achieved at Twickenham on the back foot. Sexton and O’Connell will dictate that and change the point of attack if, say, the lineout maul falters.
In Dublin last year – when both men were absent – we played into their hands. We carried around the corner too much. They took possession back and Owen Farrell kicked them out of a sticky situation.
More variation in Irish tactics than we’ve seen to date, needs to be revealed. Gael Fickou’s match-winning French try in Paris is as good a blueprint as any to stretching the white defensive line.
Plenty of the old attributes are also needed to win at Twickenham, even if they are outdated.
In Cian Healy, we have a man capable of doing four or five Ginger McLoughlin charges. We don’t need a heroic Mick Galwey try or flashes of magnificence from Simon Geoghegan off one planned backline attack. We have an entire playbook now and much of it will be required to keep England guessing.
To actually beat them requires lots of little victories, like breaking even in the collisions; it requires patience, territory and our on-field leaders delivering Schmidt’s latest tactics to near perfection.
And in Twickenham it requires a lot of luck.