In a game of margins there's no margin of error for Ireland


In a game of margins Scotland were brutal and England brilliant. Scotland had 11 lineouts to England’s 13; both losing two. Scrums were similar and tackle rates were exactly the same, on 86 per cent, yet England hammered Scotland. Margins.

On the Scottish 11 lineouts, hooker Dougie Hall targeted the tail three times, a launch pad for Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg out wide. Hogg’s running can make serious hay. Curiously, with monster targets, especially Richie Gray, Hall hit openside Kelly Brown. Each time, English blindside wing forward Tom Wood climbed brilliantly to run interference.

The first time, Wood simply grabbed Brown’s inside arm for a fraction and the ball spilled forward. The second time Wood flailed his inside hand right in front of Brown’s face and the ball spilled, and finally, Wood grabbed Brown’s arm again and the ball spilled on his own side.

Neither Visser nor Hogg got the ball; did the Scots know why? Surely, Brown, the captain and the target did?

I followed Brown for the next few phases to observe his reaction and inexplicably, he accepted his fate. I can’t imagine Peter O’Mahony or Seán O’Brien allowing Wood three chances to ruin an Irish lineout and Simon Zebo’s chance to shine! Margins.

Because of these margins a talented Scotland are awful. Conversely, England not yet a great rugby team, beat the Scots easily and the All Blacks convincingly; margins.


The most important thing to have in the Aviva on Sunday is a stopwatch. Count the time England’s recycle takes and if it is consistently below five seconds, Ireland will lose. If it is above five seconds, Ireland have a great chance to win. Is it that simple? I think so, but enormous thought, tactics and teamwork will have to come out of Ireland to make it so.

Beyond margins, Brian O’Driscolls magic won man of the match in Cardiff, while Owen Farrell’s methodology won it in London. England are a basic, low error team, epitomised by captain Chris Robshaw, who works exceptionally hard, running lines, making his tackles.

Their system is built on excellence and pace, not experiment. Pace at the breakdown is crucial to get their lines and phases going and into it they bring monsters such as Manu Tuilagi; those five seconds become crucial to his attack and our defence.

Inside Tuilagi, Billy Twelvetrees (selection dependent) is the only English player who looks like a classic French back. He carries in both hands, accelerates through gaps the English multiphase open up; especially dangerous with Chris Ashton loitering off blindside wing.

This tidal wave system is far from the creativity of the French and Welsh, or for that matter Italy, but with Twelvetrees England have an excellent passer of the ball and spotter of space, not unlike All Black Conrad Smith.

Further inside is scrumhalf Ben Youngs, who confuses me. He often looks for something to happen coming off the base rather than making it happen, or affording others space and time to do so.

He continually steps laterally from the breakdown across the pillar defence, I assume to suck them out of shape but a well-disciplined defence will gobble that up – if the recycle is over five seconds! If not, trouble. It robs time from his outside backs.

Yes, he was sensational on the break for Geoff Parling’s try, spotting Jim Hamilton out of position but at what cost against a well-disciplined defence?

Bigger threat

Danny Care would be a bigger threat to Ireland. His pass is sharper and less indulgent, more Peter Stringer and his out half looks more assured with the extra time. Suffice to say I hope Youngs starts! Either way what challenge will Tuilagi offer over Alex Cuthbert and George North? Should Ireland’s defence change?

As in Cardiff, O’Driscoll must close the door on 13 with confidence in Jonny Sexton inside. But England don’t bamboozle defences, they starve them of time and swamp them in numbers. Hence our wingers have a less confusing challenge but the pace and physicality is higher; a case for Andrew Trimble?

The Irish bench is crucial on Sunday as Mike Ross doesn’t even play 80 minutes for Leinster. Ireland can’t fall into the same trap as last year when the team allowed the loss of Ross to permeate all aspects of their performance.

England work very hard to get both sides of the breakdown and in possession, they operate distinct pods. Robshaw offers especially on third phase, taking a flat pivot for bigger ball-carriers. It is crucial Sexton is not asked to make this tackle, which is what England will want; sucking in backs to create space for Tuilagi is England’s game .

Ireland’s forwards needs to fill the field, pushing backs outfield allied to violent rucking to slow the “stopwatch” recycle and keep England forever in the margins!

PS: He’s back, Trevor Brennan! 7.30pm kick-off tomorrow night in Donnybrook, Validus Re Stuart Mangan Memorial Cup Ireland Legends vs England Legends

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